2023 appropriations bills include more oversight, transparency, staffer supports

For all of its talk about transparency and accountability, Congress itself has a ways to go on these matters. Lately, a group called the Congressional Data Task...

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For all of its talk about transparency and accountability, Congress itself has a ways to go on these matters. Lately, a group called the Congressional Data Task Force has expanded its own charter. This as the House moves to fund some overdue technology updates. For what’s going on, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the policy director of Demand Progress, Daniel Schuman.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dan, good to have you back.

Daniel Schuman: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: And let’s begin with the most recent appropriations bill they’re talking about for 2023. There’s a lot in there about Congress itself. So let’s start with what you’re seeing what matters here.

Daniel Schuman: We’re seeing about 50 different items that relate to government transparency, accountability and strengthening the legislative branch and oversight. It’s things that you and I have been talking about, I think for over a decade. Some of them are things that rise to newsworthiness in terms of going everywhere, which is questions around congressional unionization, we’re seeing funding for this process for how staff to unionize. But there’s also a lot of little esoteric things in there that have been long overdue. Things like the statements of disbursements, which is probably the wonkiest thing that I could ever talk about on your show, which is basically tracking how all the money moves through the House, they’re going to be publishing that information online in a data format, which means that you will actually be able to see how much money each contractor gets or tracking staffers’ overtime.

They’re fixing the way we track lobbyists. So that, I’m a federally registered lobbyists, our unique identifiers will be publicly available. So you can see all the entity that I lobbied for, but more generally, applicable , except for nerds, like you and me are things like I mentioned unionization before increasing pay for interns. So that now all interns in the House will be able to earn the minimum wage in D.C. DC minimum wage went up to 16 bucks an hour, they will all be able to earn a little bit more than that. There is expansion of tracking of diversity and retention, there is greater outreach for hiring. As you know, interns are the pipe staff. So they’re improving both tracking of them and outreach. They’re creating a new office, basically the intern office that will be focused on helping them to gauge the process of support member offices. One of the things that we’ve discovered over time is there are inspector generals inside the legislative branch, but there’s a whole bunch of gaps in coverage. Some places have oversight, and some places have none. So they’re going to do a study to figure out where the IGs don’t have oversight, and try to close those gaps. And on the flip side of that, the Capitol Police Inspector General, which you and I have spoken of before, they don’t publish their reports to the public, like all 80-something other federal inspectors general so the appropriators have said for the third year in a row, OK guys, it’s really time publish those darn IG reports make them publicly available, so we can actually see what you’re investigating.

Tom Temin: Wow. So they are acting on a broad range of issues. Quick question. This is in the House appropriations bill. Does it need the Senate confirmation to become law for the House?

Daniel Schuman: Legislative Branch appropriations are weird. So the answer is yes and no. Many of these items are included in the committee report. A committee report, of course, never becomes law, but it is persuasive to the people inside the legislative branch. So if you see the appropriators include language in the committee report, either in the House or in the Senate, unless it’s contradicted someplace else, the stakeholders will follow it. So the things that relate to the House itself become very likely to happen, things that relate to other entities, such as CRS needs to make better summaries of the bills, because no one can understand the summaries that they’re currently publishing. That is still persuasive, but it’s a little bit less persuasive, but you’re going to see them likely to act. And then some things that relate to funding level. So there’s a 70 million bump for the Government Accountability Office to do oversight and more funding for science and technology. That doesn’t happen until and unless the appropriations bill becomes law. So when it comes to Congress, everything is just weirder. And his is weirder, but it’s fun.

Tom Temin: Yeah, well, I’ve always thought Congress is a bit on the weird side, we’re speaking with Daniel Schuman, he is policy director of Demand Progress. And there’s also language about the modernization of the House technology itself. And I always go to the fact that they publish unsearchable PDFs of their bills. And of course, bill language is mostly nonsense to the normal eye. So what’s going on there?

Daniel Schuman: Oh, there’s so much great news there things that you and I again have talked about for a dozen years are changing. So one is that they are creating a pot of money, a $10 million technology modernization fund. The House will soon row House-wide, a tool that allows you to see how an amendment would change a bill or a bill would change a law in real time. So if you’ve got a draft amendment, and you want to know what would actually do, you can push a button and you can actually see what it would do. So you can stack up a couple of amendments, one against the other and you can basically see what their effects would be. They’ve been building this for a long time. It will be House-wide by the end of the year. And this was something that’s been long supported through the appropriations process, and it was announced that, you mentioned at the top of the show with the newly renamed Congressional Data Task Force also incoming on those lines. If you’ve ever tried to look up amendments to Senate bills, you’ve ended up digging through the Congressional Record, which is, well, a fantastically useful resource, not where most people spend most of their time, they will soon be including all of the amendments in the Senate in Congress.gov. And if you’ve ever looked at the bill tax that’s published on Congress.gov, it’s like this weird narrow column with like funny line breaks, that’s very hard to read. Well, they are updating the tool, they being GPO and the Library of Congress and others, so that it actually will look like something a normal person could read. So you can actually copy and paste and use it. So it’s getting better.

Tom Temin: And I wanted to go back to something you mentioned a moment ago, a $10 million technology modernization fund. Is that for Congress, or is that just the update of the TMF available to federal agencies?

Daniel Schuman: Oh, so this is a new fund, it was created last year, $2 million, and it’s going up to $10 million this year, and is for the house only. So this is a pot of money for the chief administrative officer for the Clerk of the House. And for a bunch of other little offices that no one’s heard of like the Office of Law Revision Counsel to build all of these tools that we’ve been talking about, there’s a new House Digital Service as well, that we’ll be able to draw from this. And its purpose is to fund many of the recommendations made by the select committee on the modernization of Congress. So things like how that changes the bill, the bill changes a lot in real time, tracking lobbyists, fixing committee documents, you know, one of the big problems that you have is that it’s often very hard to find witness disclosure forms, or to find testimony or things like that. This is to modernize all of that, so that you can have a dedicated set of funds that will persist over time, so that you can build short and longer term technology projects that will update a lot of their operational stuff. You know, a lot of these things seem sort of in the weeds. The effect of it is you can see influence over time, you can see legislation over time, you can track the committees better, you can find the videos better, it will improve the experience, both on the Hill and off to understand what Congress is doing. And that’s a lot of bang for a little buck.

Tom Temin: And what does the Bulk Data Task Force and they’ve been up to some action to recently?

Daniel Schuman: That’s exactly right. So the Bulk Data Task Force, as you know, was created a decade ago, because Congress is trying to figure out whether or not they’re going to make legislative information available to the American people as data and they decided to do so. So it was just renamed as the Congressional Data Task Force. And in addition to the other things that we talked about, they’re also looking at improving how Senate video is made available. So you can actually find it, which is something which is actually surprisingly difficult to do for a number of proceedings. And there was an announcement at their meeting that the Library of Congress will now have an API for their information. So GPO has long had an API, an API is basically a way for a computer to ask another computer for something saying, hey, give me the text of this bill. Or what’s the status of this action? For 10 years, we’ve had this information published in bulk, so that if you’re a developer, you could download 1000s 1000s of pages of data. But what you couldn’t do is say, hey, what’s the status of this particular bill? They will have this tool so that people who are building technology and tools either inside Congress or out can say, I want the text of this thing, just give me that. Or has this bill passed the House? These types of tools, these little web hooks make it possible to build modern technology around questions relating to legislative information.

Tom Temin: And just a final question, does all of this have bipartisan support, these modernization moves, these transparency moves and so on?

Daniel Schuman: The vast majority of these things that we’ve discussed do have bipartisan support. Almost all the technology modernization stuff or all of it does, all the recommendations from the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress need to have at least two thirds of the committee agree. The vast majority were unanimous legislative branch appropriators majority and a minority as to the Committee on House administration for most of these things. You see some divergence around the diversity and inclusion stuff a little bit. There’s an Office of Diversity Inclusion, and you see real divisions around the unionization question. Put into effect actually an item of the Contract with America from 25 years ago to personal community leadership to unionize. Republicans say they are generally not supportive of this happening inside the House, although they don’t seem to have a problem with it happening necessarily inside the support offices and agencies where there have been unions for decades and decades.

Tom Temin: Interesting, well we’ll have to keep an eye on those developments. Daniel Schuman as policy director of Demand Progress. Thanks so much for a highly informed update.

Daniel Schuman: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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