On Friday, the House of Representatives passed the best legislative branch appropriations bill since Republicans took power in 2010. Unlike many prior appropriations bills, which often undermined the House’s capacity to govern through deep budget cuts, this legislation contained provisions to strengthen the House and set the stage for further improvements. In addition, it was created in a bipartisan manner, drawing on the hard work of Reps. Kevin Yoder and Tim Ryan and their staff.
To start, the House began to reinvest in its staff after a generation’s worth of harmful cutting. The very modest 1.7% increase in the Member Representational Account and the slightly larger increase in the account for House Salaries, Officers, and Employees is essential to the House fulfilling its duties, especially considering overall funding for the House of Representatives is down by 10% since FY 2010. This essential funding for the legislative branch is tiny compared to the enormous amounts spent by the executive branch — 0.1% of the total federal budget — and this legislation will begin to restore a little balance to the branches.
Capacity to Govern
The appropriations bill also sets the stage for the House to work better.
The House will commission a study on congressional staff pay and retention, including a comparison of congressional staff pay against the executive branch as well as its inquiry into whether staff are receiving equal pay for equal work. This look at the staff who work in the House is timely because it will help ensure that Congress has the staff necessary to do its job, and that some of the problems raised by the #metoo movement are appropriately ventilated and addressed. It should hopefully set the stage to address the House’s undercapacity and diversity problems. (For more, please read our testimony.)
The bill also includes a study by CRS on establishing a technology assistance office and identifying the resources available to members of Congress on science and technology. This change is sorely needed and long overdue, as the recent hearing on Facebook demonstrated. While the House did not include an amendment to restore $2.5 million in funding for the Office of Technology Assistance, the margin in favor improved, and had bipartisan support. (For more, read the testimony of the R Street Institute.)
Similarly, the GAO will conduct a study on avenues for whistleblowers to connect to the proper congressional offices. This could potentially lead to significant cost savings, as improved communications will help root out waste, fraud, abuse, and malfeasance. Ultimately, we believe the House should establish an office that provides internal support and external guidance for whistleblowers. (For more, read the testimony of the Government Accountability Project.)
The House included provisions to improve the transparency of its operations. (For more on these items, read the testimony of the Congressional Data Coalition.)
It required the Library of Congress to publish a unified calendar for hearings and markups. This will make it possible — at long last — for the general public to have a central place where it can see all the committee proceedings in one place.
In addition, the House will make committee witness disclosure forms available online. These witness disclosure forms were initially created to track the activities by lobbyists, but the way they are gathered and published makes them unsuitable for that purpose. A central repository of electronic data about witnesses will help bring this disclosure provision to life.
The House will also begin to publish bioguide information as structured data, which will support civil society and others in tracking the work of members of Congress.
The bill also directs GPO to explore the costs of publishing the Statutes at Large in a digital format. These documents are all the bills enacted by Congress. Demand Progress/The Congressional Data Coalition was the first entity to publish a comprehensive set of the law online; and the Library of Congress belatedly followed. But the text of the laws aren’t available as data, which we would need to be able to show how the laws have changed over time, or how a bill would change a law. (For more, read this primer from the Data Coalition).
We are impressed by all that was packed into the legislative branch appropriations bill, but we should note a few items that we would have like to have seen included:
- Providing select staff with appropriate clearances to support congressional oversight of the intelligence community. (For more, see the testimony of Mandy Smithberger.)
- Strengthening GAO’s hand when it comes to reviewing waste, fraud, and abuse in the Intelligence Community. (For more, see the testimony of Kel McClanahan.)
- Improving lobbying disclosure by fixing how data is released to the public. (For more, see the testimony of Sheila Krumholz.)
This upcoming week, Senate Legislative Branch appropriators will consider their own appropriations bill. Demand Progress Action’s written testimony requests that they address the following items:
- Just as the House has done, the Senate should review Legislative Branch salaries for parity with the executive branch as well as examine internal pay disparities by gender and race.
- Publish the Senate’s Official Personnel and Official Expense Account Report as data, not just a PDF, as the House does with its Member Representation Account information. This will make it possible to easily follow how the Senate spends money on its self.
- Create a website for the Legal Treatise known as the Constitution Annotated. The Constitution Annotated explains the US Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, but the way it is currently released to the public online makes that document virtually unreadable.
- Create a Chief Data Officer for the legislative branch, to help facilitate the publication of Congressional information, provide support to offices, and serve as a point of contact for the public.
In addition, we join R Street’s call for a study into creating a technology assessment office in Congress. And, as a member of the Congressional Data Coalition, we strongly support its call for the Library of Congress to establish a Public Information Advisory Committee that would facilitate the Library working with public stakeholders on how it makes information available to the public.
This has been a remarkably productive subcommittee from a transparency perspective. Just last year it required the Library of Congress to publish CRS reports online, which is something we continue to monitor closely. With the departure of Rep. Yoder to another subcommittee, we will see what the 116th Congress will bring on the House side, and of course will be keeping an eye on the Senate.