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What to do about House Legislative Branch Appropriations

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Later today the House of Representatives will consider the Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill for 2012, which if enacted would provide funds for legislative branch operations for the fiscal year starting on October 1st. Several of the 16 amendments expected to be considered during today's hour-long debate have strong transparency implications, as well as one that is not expected to be considered but is worthy of congressional action.

Make CRS Reports Publicly Available

This amendment, offered by Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), would require the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate to maintain a website containing CRS Reports and Appropriation products, while protecting confidential advice from CRS. The amendment unfortunately will not be considered because of House Rules, but it is noteworthy that it was introduced; the amendment would make many CRS products available to the public through Member and committee websites. These invaluable reports help explain policymaking in easy-to-understand terms, and there's no good reason why they aren't already made available to the public.

We and many other organizations have repeatedly called for easy public access to these reports. There have been public discussions on this topic. Bills have been introduced in Congress again and again. (Rep. Quigley and Sen. Lieberman have been particular leaders on this issue.) It's long past time for Congress to make CRS Reports available to the public.

The House Should Defeat The Attempt to Reduce OCE Funding by 40%

Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) is at it again with an attempt to defund the Office of Congressional Ethics, the House's independent ethics watchdog, perhaps because the office investigated him for questionable activity. In 2010, Watt withdrew an amendment that may have adversely affected corporations that just held a fundraiser for him two days prior to a vote, triggering an investigation. (Watt was ultimately held blameless by the often embattled and deeply conflicted House Ethics Committee -- which is different than the independent OCE.)

Watt's amendment would reduce OCE funding by 40%, which is a $620,000 reduction. Not only do we disagree with the cut, in December we called for OCE's (puny) funding to be doubled this Congress and its powers strengthened. Noted congressional scholar Norm Ornstein just published an editorial in Roll Call that urged OCE be strengthened. Now is not the time to back away from the ethics process. This amendment, which is second in line for consideration, should be defeated.

Revive the Office of Technology Assessment

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) would revive the Office of Technology Assessment by providing $2.5m for its operations in his amendment. This is a smart move. The OTA was a legislative support agency that provided Congress with objective and authoritative analysis of complex scientific and technical issues. After nearly 25 years of service, it was defunded in 1995 as part of a spasm of cost-cutting, which in OTA's case was overzealous. Technology is at the heart of our economy, and Congress needs smart advice from experts now more than ever. This amendment, which the 12th in line for consideration, should be adopted.

Don't Further Reduce GPO's Budget

Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) has offered an amendment that would further reduce the Government Printing Office's budget by $5m. As the report accompanying the bill notes, the amount appropriated to GPO in the legislation is "$22,067,324, or 16.3% below the fiscal year 2011 level and $35,474,000 below the budget request." Considering GPO's key role in making information available to the public, and how drastically its budget is already being cut, this further reduction appears unwarranted. GAO is already set to look into restructuring GPO, per the Committee Report, so these additional cuts are likely premature. Rep. Stutzman's amendment will be considered eighth, and should be defeated.

Other Amendments

There are a number of other noteworthy amendments, but there's two worth highlighting. First, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) would prohibit Members of Congress from using House funds to purchase web ads that advertise Member or Committee websites. We have not yet formulated an opinion on this amendment, but Rep. Flake deserves commendation for continuing to think about the intersection of ethics, money, and new media. His amendment will be considered 11th.

Second, Rep. Erik Paulson (R-Minn.), along with several others, has introduced two amendments that would require legislation and the Congressional Record be distributed to congressional offices electronically and not in printed form, unless requested by the office. While we do not have a recommendation as to passage or defeat, it is great to see thoughtful consideration of how to move the House further into the electronic age. This may be a cost-savings measure, but it also would further the House's embrace of electronic media and would prompt deliberations on how to improve how electronic information is distributed -- both inside Congress and to the public. The Committee on House Administration recently held a hearing on modernizing information delivery in the House.