Congressional Staff

Another Government Shutdown Deadline Approaches

Another federal government shutdown looms unless Congress can pass a spending bill before September 30 over the opposition of the 42-member House Freedom Caucus, which wants to make budget cuts before the November 8 general election.

Another federal government shutdown looms unless Congress can pass a spending bill before September 30 over the opposition of the 42-member House Freedom Caucus, which wants to make budget cuts before the November 8 general election.

If you think the presidential race seems repetitious, think about the prospect of another federal government shutdown. That might just happen on September 30 if Congress can’t pass legislation to fund continuing operations.

This potential shutdown has all the hallmarks of earlier ones – the right-wing faction of the House GOP caucus is balking at a short continuing resolution to push major budget decisions past the November 8 general election when a new president will be elected and Senate control could flip from Republicans to Democrats.

The 42-member Freedom Caucus wants to avoid an omnibus spending package in a lame-duck session of Congress. GOP House leaders, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have expressed support for approving a continuing resolution this month that would maintain existing spending levels until around Christmas.

If Freedom Caucus members hold firm, House Speaker Paul Ryan will be staring at the same dilemma that bedeviled and ultimately unseated his predecessor, John Boehner – turning to Democrats for the needed votes to approve a spending bill. Democrats have their own priorities and have stymied Republican proposals of late.

House Republicans are huddling to find a work-around after Congress returned earlier this week after a seven-week recess. Preventing a government shutdown is just one of many spending issues up in the air at this point.

Congress left town in July without approving a spending measure to combat the Zika virus, which has emerged as more of a threat in Miami and potentially other parts of the South than previously anticipated.

The presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is tightening up as the candidates seek to distinguish themselves on a range of issues, including national security, which will be the subject of an NBC-sponsored commander-in-chief forum tonight. Before the event, Trump said he favors releasing the Pentagon budget from the spending constraints that apply across the board to all federal agencies.

Some conservatives in Congress have echoed Trump's view, but they face the problem of what to cut to compensate for higher defense spending. Democrats, including President Obama, oppose selectively excusing defense spending from overall spending constraints.

Congressional Democrats and Obama appear in policy lock-step in support of a short-term spending bill that will push bigger budget questions beyond election day. That position is buttressed by the serious prospect that Democrats could regain control of the Senate though the GOP majority in the Senate hasn’t warmed up to the idea of closing down the federal government.

There is little question the budget priorities of a President Clinton and a President Trump would differ substantially, which makes the looming stalemate over a stopgap continuing resolution even stickier. It also raises the question of whether an actual government shutdown would help or hurt Trump or Clinton.

Trump has positioned himself as a political outsider with the personal experience of knowing how the system works and what needs to change. Clinton has a hard time escaping the “insider” label, but can be expected to argue that now is not the time to threaten or shutter the federal government, given the precarious momentum of the economic recovery and a flurry of foreign threats.

The Freedom Caucus may be wary of Trump in the White House, but they worry more about a Clinton victory in November, combined with a Democratic takeover in the Senate. They may argue now is potentially the last time they have the leverage for major cuts in federal spending and a budget boost for the military. What will be interesting to watch in the next three weeks is whether the Freedom Caucus actually has the leverage it imagines.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

The Arm of Congress That Doesn’t Sleep

Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

While Congress is on frequent recess and routinely at odds, congressional district staffers operate in a starkly different reality. Unencumbered by the dysfunction and partisanship in Washington, they play a critical role in the communities they serve.

While those inside the beltway may think they’re at the center of the universe, sometimes the most meaningful congressional action happens at the hands of a local staffer. Every day, far away from the news cameras lining the Capitol Rotunda, district staff members solve important problems for hometown constituents. In fact, a congressman representing his district often takes the shape of a field representative unraveling Social Security tie-ups or helping a constituent navigate bureaucratic red tape.

CFM represents clients in Washington, D.C., many of which are municipalities in the Pacific Northwest. As federal lobbyists for municipal clients, congressional district staff are our valued partners. After we identify local projects and priorities, we coordinate to make the case for federal funding in Washington. They help us nudge along federal agencies when they’re moving slow, weigh in with support for a client’s grant project and advise their boss to shed light on a local issue when appropriate.

They are also the full-time eyes, ears and mouth of a member in the communities they represent. They attend community events, local government meetings and meet face-to-face with constituents and local stakeholders on a daily basis. As such, we often rely on their local knowledge as a barometer.

Members of Congress are often required to be two places at once. In order to be effective, they must spend significant time in D.C. to build relationships and increasingly, raise money for their next campaign. However, the more time they spend in D.C., the harder it is to stay in touch with constituents and keep abreast of their concerns. District staff help alleviate this inherent dichotomy, providing the political linkage lawmakers themselves have a hard time sustaining. 

Paralyzing partisanship has plagued Congress in recent years, and the public has taken notice. Approval ratings for the institution as a whole are at record lows. However, it’s reasonable to assume that district staff play a role when many of those same voters – despite feeling fed up with Congress – think their local representative is still doing a good job. 

While the district office may not be as prestigious as the Capitol building, it’s fertile ground for political victories. District staff aren’t hamstrung by D.C. dysfunction, and can routinely achieve results, like helping a city mitigate congestion by securing a federal transportation grant, or issuing press releases to bring national attention to local issues.

So, as Congress members return to Washington after extended visits to their districts over this historically long recess, it seems apt to salute the men and women who spend each day working in those district offices – they're some of the hardest working, most productive people in Congress.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

Hoyer Lays Out Congressional Reform Agenda

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

Lack of confidence in Congress is one of the biggest problems in the country that gets little attention on how to fix. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has offered up an agenda to address the perception that Congress is dysfunctional.

“It’s not an ideological agenda,” Hoyer says. “It’s a pragmatic agenda.”

In a speech to the Georgetown University Law Center, the Maryland Democrat called for an overhaul of the campaign finance system, enhanced voting rights, changes in the redistricting process and improvements in government technology.

“We can’t fully tap into our economic opportunities,” Hoyer said, “if we don’t make sure government works, too.”

A recent Rasmussen Report on national telephone and online poll revealed only 11 percent of respondents think Congress is doing a “good or decent job,” while 57 percent believe it is a doing a poor job. One reason for the lack of confidence is a prevalent view that most congressional representatives “sell their votes."

Hoyer pointed to the success in attracting large numbers of small donors by the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders campaigns as a model for campaign finance reform that places limits on how individuals can contribute and includes a discussion of public financing of campaigns. In addition to restoring voter trust in elected officials, Hoyer said campaign finance reform will result in a wider diversity of candidates.

Enhanced voting rights should include automatic voter registration, expanded early voting, vote-by-mail options and tools to combat voter suppression. “Every American who is eligible to vote should be able to vote. Period,” Hoyer said.

He said too much political influence in the redistricting process has led to a majority of safe Democratic and Republican House seats, which in turn has fueled increased polarization. Hoyer recommended “national redistricting standards” that reduce partisanship in drawing the lines of congressional districts.

Joining the 21st century in terms of technology would help federal agencies be as “connected and adaptive as possible,” Hoyer said, to create an “inclusive system of civic engagement.” Hoyer touted his bipartisan Information Technology Modernization Act, which would receive a one-time $3 billion investment to stimulate a wide range of technology improvement projects based on best practices in the private sector.

Hoyer added that more advanced digital systems must be “protected against cyber threats” so Americans have confidence government is “protecting their private data.” And he said a robust online presence by the federal government could allow for direct taxpayer rankings, like a “Yelp for government."

Hoyer lobbed in a couple of additional suggestions that include restoring congressional funding earmarks and removing the ability of a senator to put a hold on an executive branch nomination.

He admitted bringing back earmarks isn’t popular, but he said resumption of the practice would restore congressional decision-making over spending decisions that affect local communities. Hoyer cited an editorial by the Houston Chronicle that said, “A Congress without earmarks doesn’t spend less money. It just means that the executive branch has more control over taxpayer dollars."

Revolution at the Capitol

Congress was in recess and a shooter was in the Capitol when the revolution occurred. A potentially serious crisis was reported in real time by ordinary people wielding smartphones.

A lockdown prevented news crews from wheeling in cameras to the Capitol Monday afternoon as a lone gunman began firing shots in the Capitol Visitor Center. News organizations improvised by relying on video shot with smartphones by tourists and Capitol staffers who were “sheltered in place” as police closed in and arrested the man. Despite the lack of media access, the result was robust, timely reporting with footage directly from the scene. D.C. Police even joined the revolution by posting their own real-time updates on Twitter.

OK, we know what you’re thinking: The use of smartphones for real-time newsgathering had already become common over the past several years. But believe it or not, the situation highlights many continuing shifts in how we gather, report and consume the news today.

•  Not that long ago, video equipment was large, obtrusive and less conducive to real-time reporting. Lugging around bulky cameras, tripods and mics made it especially difficult for news crews to rush in to the scene of a crisis as police closed off access. Today, all of that equipment is often replaced by a single pocket-sized device that nearly two-thirds of Americans own and carry at just about all times of the day.  

•  Video cameras record images, but they aren’t organically connected to a news delivery channel. That’s never been a problem for smartphones.

•  Smartphones can capture video, transmit the footage quickly and provide access to social networks, blog sites and numerous other online platforms to report the news and add commentary. 

NBC correspondent Luke Russert tweeted about the Capitol lockdown and posted a picture of Capitol employees evacuating the building 30 minutes before the D.C. Police alerted the public to the incident. Meanwhile, MSNBC gave viewers a live-stream glimpse of the unfolding scene based on video shot by smartphones inside the Capitol. 

In essence, smartphones have turned average people into reporters. They can capture breaking news at any time and share it from anywhere with a signal.  

Instead of resenting the rise of citizen journalism, news organizations are embracing the growing trend as frontline reporting assistance because it can give them a scoop or at least a head start on covering a major story. After all, video shot on smartphones often has legitimacy that some news reporting lacks. 

Seeing smartphones in action at the Capitol, where most news is staged, underscores that the revolution of news coverage is in full swing. As news crews and citizen journalists alike embrace the omnipresence of smartphones, viewers will increasingly get more than press conferences and orchestrated events. They will get on-the-spot video and firsthand accounts of actual events that are shared widely across the Internet moments after they occur. This is nothing short of revolutionary.

While this revolution may not have changed attitudes toward the news media, it has changed the public’s perspective on newsgathering and the spread of information. Today, the news is less the detached reality it traditionally became over decades of nightly network broadcasts modeled on the style of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. Instead, it’s more like something you can view – or capture and share with the world – through the lens of your own smartphone. 

 

Fight Big Campaign Cash with More Congressional Staff

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

While some government reformers are still trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of political cash, two men are suggesting that is a lost cause. The road to reform, they say, is to beef up Capitol Hill staff and the nonpartisan institutions that feed Congress information.

In a lengthy Washington Monthly article, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with New America, and Steven Teles, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University, lay out an idea unlikely to spark bumper stickers in support. Adding staff and bolstering the General Accounting Office aren't ideas that readily shout "reform."

Drutman and Teles say a Congress awash in political contributions, largely from corporate interests, has become dependent on the information channels of donors. Republican leadership in Congress has shrunk its own staff resources in the name of smaller, leaner government and now must rely more heavily on the information resources of the people and organizations that got them elected.

The pay gap between what Congress pays staffers and special interests pay lobbyists, they add, encourages talented people to leave Capitol Hill for K Street, leaving Members of Congress with relatively young, inexperienced staffs who may or may not be able to smell something fishy in information fed to their bosses.

Their idea is double the number of congressional committee staffers and triple the amount available for salaries. The highest-paid positions would go to the most qualified individuals, regardless of who their boss was or which party was in control.

"Because individual staffers would be employed by the committee, their jobs would not depend on whether individual members won or lost their seats," wrote Drutman and Teles. "This would free them up to think more about the long-term policy implications, instead of being so tied to electoral fortunes of individual members. By rotating between different members and working solely for the committee, staff would build broader networks, but their core network would remain the committee. This would help to build a strong and lasting community."

"A more expanded version of the rotation system could create an exchange program between the relevant executive branch agency and the congressional committee," they explained. "This would also have the benefit of increasing the networks of congressional staff that allow them to engage in serious oversight, and also increase the belief in executive branch agencies that their counterparts in Congress are trustworthy and knowledgeable."

As insiders know, there is a version of this rotation system in place between the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Internal Revenue Service. Staff members have toggled back and forth for years. Unfortunately, the current federal tax code may not stand as a great example of the result.

Drutman and Teles admit that some congressmen and senators may continue to take their information and orders from the "extreme ideological wing" or rich campaign donors. But they say the presence of a well-paid, balanced congressional staff can help federal lawmakers separate the wheat from the chaff. They speculate, perhaps too hopefully, that the presence of skilled congressional staff may prompt talented people to seek political office in hopes they can legislate, not just dial for dollars.

Criticism of the current congressional set-up eclipses partisanship. In 2010, then House Minority Leader John Boehner said Congress "does not function, does not deliberate and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent." House Speaker Boehner has not found the remedy for the problem he identified five years ago.

Drutman and Teles say GOP moves to cut staff and geld nonpartisan congressional advisory bodies may be out of touch with some of their own most conservative instincts. They say Congress has crippled its own ability to stand toe-to-toe on issues with the executive branch and legislate with discernment on issues such as taxation, health care and immigration.

In 2013, Congress spent about $2 billion on its own operation. Drutman and Teles said that is roughly equal to a Pentagon cost overrun.

"Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies."