Today in OpenGov: Have you tried turning it off and on again


In today's edition, Congress needs a reboot, the problem with partisan election officials, the Secret Service tests facial recognition at the White House, and more. 

Today's roundup is brought to you by the IT Crowd

washington watch

Committee staffs have declined sharply in the House and remained mostly stagnant in the Senate since peaking in the 1980's.
  • Congress, in need of a reboot, has largely given up on its policymaking and oversight roles… "The spring’s high-profile Capitol Hill hearings with the heads of Facebook, Twitter and Google should have been a chance for lawmakers to demonstrate to the American public why Congress is such an important institution…The hearings were perhaps more useful as an illustration of the decline of policy expertise on the Hill, and how Congress has increasingly relinquished its policy-crafting responsibilities to the executive branch and private sector…Since the 1990s, changes in the dynamics of Congress and how it does business have resulted in a significant loss of its capacity to perform oversight and push through complex legislation." (Roll Call)
  • …Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi agrees to some House rules changes as she consolidates support in her Speaker bid. "Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus extracted concessions from Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday regarding changes to House rules in exchange for support from eight holdouts for her speaker bid…The Problem Solvers began a push back in July for House rule changes that would foster more bipartisan legislating after unveiling their Break the Gridlock package." (Roll Call)
  • A decision in the first trial challenging the Census citizenship question is expected in the coming weeks. On Wednesday, "closing arguments in a case challenging the Commerce Department’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census highlighted just how problematic a citizenship question would be. The case is the first of several related cases to go to trial. At the hearing, lawyers for 17 states, the District of Columbia, several municipalities, and a coalition of advocacy groups told the court why the citizenship question violates federal law — and why it would undermine the quality and accuracy of the census — while attorneys for the Justice Department, which is representing the Commerce Department, made their last attempts to dissuade the court from ruling against it." (The Brennan Center for Justice)
  • North Carolina election officials refuse to certify election results in one Congressional district amid investigation into irregularities. "North Carolina election officials are investigating possible irregularities with absentee ballots in the state’s 9th Congressional District, refusing to certify the race weeks after Election Day. Unofficial results show Mark Harris, a Republican, defeating Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 cast. At a Tuesday meeting to certify statewide election results, the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement declined to certify that race even as it signed off on the state’s other congressional contests." (Washington Post)

states and cities

Outgoing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) was a particularly controversial partisan election official. Image via the ACLU.
  • The problem with partisan election officials and why it won't be solved any time soon. "When Ohio State elections law professor Daniel Tokaji tells colleagues from other parts of the world about how the United States picks election officials, he says they're stunned…That's because in a large portion of the U.S., elections are supervised by an official who is openly aligned with a political party. It's a system of election administration that's routinely come under scrutiny over the past two decades, and did again in this year's midterms especially in Georgia, Florida and Kansas…At the state level, two-thirds of states elect a chief official, in many cases a secretary of state, who oversees voting. And the vast majority of them are partisans." (NPR)
  • New York City's incoming investigations commissioner looks to strike a balance. "Ms. Garnett, 47, will step into her new job under unusual circumstances: Her predecessor, Mark G. Peters, was fired by Mayor Bill de Blasio after an independent report found that he abused his power and retaliated against a whistle-blower. At the same time, there are concerns that Mr. Peters’s replacement must remain aggressive in investigating the de Blasio administration." (New York Times)
  • Massachusetts' public records fees are still too damn high! "While the 2016 reforms to Massachusetts Public Records Law brought some key changes, such as a cap on copying fees and agency response times, Bay State requesters can still face hefty financial barriers to getting their records. Generally, fees are assessed by charging requesters search, review, and copying fees. While the reforms tackled the latter – bringing copying charges down to five cents a copy, as opposed to the 20 or even 50 cent charge per page agencies would ask for previously – search and review charges remained unchanged." (MuckRock)
  • Facebook is expanding a local news feature to 400 cities. "Facebook on Wednesday announced that it is expanding its local news feature 'Today In' to 400 cities across the U.S as well as Australia. The feature aggregates information from local media outlets, government, community organizations and first responders. Users can either check in directly at their 'Today In' page or allow the feature to promote local news on their main newsfeed. The latest expansion will mostly reach small and midsize cities, as well as 'news deserts,' places that lack a robust local media presence. It was previously only available in a few dozen U.S. locations." (The Hill)


Image via the Project on Government Oversight.
  • The Secret Service is testing facial recognition software for White House security. "The Secret Service started testing a facial recognition system in and around the White House last week, according to a privacy assessment released by the Department of Homeland Security on Nov. 28. The pilot uses a facial recognition system, unnamed in the privacy document, to pore over faces collected by the Crown closed circuit TV system that is used inside and outside the White House complex in Washington, D.C. The goal of the project is to determine whether a facial recognition capability can be used by the Secret Service to identify "known subjects of interest prior to initial contact with law enforcement" around the White House." (Federal Computer Week)
  • Ivanka Trump attempts to dismiss concerns over her use of private email for public business. "The president’s daughter and White House adviser, Ivanka Trump, said her use of a personal email account for government business was not the same as Hillary Clinton’s using a private email server, which the president and his supporters had long argued was illegal…A recent White House review found that Ms. Trump used a personal email account multiple times in 2017 to conduct government business…Ms. Trump said that all of her emails from her private account were archived at the White House." (New York Times)
  • Newly empowered House Democrats are eyeing the Trump administration with their increased oversight and investigative powers. What will they accomplish? "In January, when Democrats take control of the House, how will they oversee and investigate the Trump administration? When the parties divide control of government, lawmakers typically scrutinize the executive branch more aggressively — particularly when the parties are as intensely polarized as they are now.  Some observers warn Democrats not to push too far too fast, lest they risk a backlash. But a coherent, vigorous investigative strategy can erode President Trump’s support, leading to policy and political gains for the Democrats." (Washington Post)


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