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‘Dead billionaires’ and a tech Peace Corps? Lawmakers float ideas to fix Congress

First hearing of new modernization committee turns into a brainstorming session

Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., left, and John Sarbanes, D-Md., are seen in between testimony during a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress business meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., left, and John Sarbanes, D-Md., are seen in between testimony during a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress business meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer kicked off the first hearing of the new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress with a plea for a return of something from the past: earmarks.

The Maryland Democrat was the first among 30 lawmakers who offered ideas Tuesday to the temporary and bipartisan panel, which has been charged with making recommendations about how to update Congress for the modern era.

The committee’s chairman, Derek Kilmer of Washington, referred to Congress as a “fixer-upper” and added that the panel’s recommendations aimed to make the legislative body more effective, with better staff retention, more diverse staff and better technology.

Hoyer and other lawmakers also called on the committee to recommend better compensation for their employees to help woo a more diverse roster of aides and to retain them, stemming the flow of staffers to higher-paying gigs in the K Street lobbying corridor. Others offered their ideas for improved cybersecurity in the legislative branch; an overhaul of Congress’ budget and appropriations process; and a new congressional calendar to reduce lawmakers’ travel time, among others.

The year-long, 12-lawmaker panel, evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans, will offer recommendations for rehabilitating Congress in such areas as technology and cybersecurity, procedures and scheduling, staff retention and executive branch oversight.

House members have given the new panel broad jurisdiction but not a lot of authority. The committee can’t offer legislation, but is instead tasked with offering regular updates and a set of final recommendations.

Kilmer and the panel’s top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia, issued a joint statement Tuesday night saying the hearing “showed that there is more common ground on a lot of these issues than most people realize.”

[Outside influences seek to remake ‘This Old House’]

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of California, spoke briefly to the committee. Pelosi called for more transparency in the legislative process, while McCarthy said the panel should consider a program for technology industry insiders to serve temporarily in government, sort of a tech Peace Corps but for Congress.

Hoyer has previously called for a return of member-directed spending, or earmarks, with full disclosure of project requests. House Democrats decided recently, however, not to bring back earmarks on their chamber’s appropriations bills for this year.

“I may sound like a broken record,” Hoyer told the committee. “Transparency and accountability fixed what was wrong with earmarks in earlier years. Eliminating them altogether, which was a winning talking point but a misguided policy, has had the effect of taking Congress out of key funding decisions.”

Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois, suggested that the panel look at recommending some type of endowed foundation that would pay for some congressional staffers, funded from the estates of “dead billionaires,” to avoid conflicts of interest.

Several lawmakers suggested that Congress stay in session for longer stretches, such as two weeks, with longer but less frequent recesses. Such a proposal would allow lawmakers to spend less time traveling to and from their districts.

Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York said Congress needs to do more to address looming cyberthreats, adding that lawmakers and their staff members are “prime targets” for nefarious foreign hackers. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, a California Democrat, brought to the committee a similar message, calling the institution “very much stuck in the past,” making it potentially vulnerable to hacks.

Numerous lawmakers chastised what they called a dysfunctional budget and appropriations process, one that has led to recent government shutdowns.

“We can all agree that our budget process is broken,” Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin told the committee. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Rep. Dean Phillips was among several members of the freshman class to appear before the panel. The Minnesota Democrat criticized Congress’ office space as cramped and uninspired and called for more bipartisan “team building” activities beginning with new-member orientation.

[Earmarks won’t be back this year, at least in the House]

Some of the sternest words came from Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., the New Jersey Democrat in his 12th term in the House. He said Congress had become “feeble,” turning over its power as the first branch of government with “deliberate institutional vandalism,” morphing it into the unofficial third branch further empowering an “army of corporate lobbyists.”

He cited the cuts to Congress in 1995 under the speakership of Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who helped lead the party to power with promises to overhaul the legislative branch. Pascrell said those cuts to staffing levels had not been reversed and amounted to a congressional “lobotomy.”

Freshman Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois said the committee should do more to make Congress a less hostile place for women, including when it comes to dealing with harassment and assault allegations. Another new lawmaker, Rep. Katie Porter of California, said serving in Congress can be difficult for members who are not affluent and suggested the new panel look at ways to fix that.

“Congress is not built for the middle class,” she said, noting that she had to use her personal funds to pay the deposit for a lease for her district office. She added that her congressional health insurance did not start until Feb. 1, weeks after she was sworn into office.

Though they hail from the far ends of the political spectrum, Reps. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, and Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican, told the committee that campaign money had a seedy influence on Capitol Hill.

Sarbanes said lawmakers needed to pay aides better so they don’t depart as readily for the influence industry, while Buck called for an end to party dues, the campaign money that lawmakers transfer to their respective party committees, being used to judge whether someone is qualified for a committee spot or a leadership position.

“People are buying committee positions,” Buck said. “It is fundamentally wrong.”

Such dues to the party committees are routine for Democrats and Republicans. Committee chairmen and chairwomen in the 115th Congress doled out big piles of money, some more than $1 million, to the party committees, according to research from Issue One, a campaign finance overhaul group.

The lawmakers who offered their views to the committee largely did so without regard to their party affiliation or the latest partisan fights, with just one slightly veiled exception.

Rep. Brian Mast told the committee that he believes lawmakers should submit to background checks before accessing classified information. “Do we have members with lifestyle choices that make them targets for blackmail?” the Florida Republican said, later adding: “Do we have representatives that hate Israel so much they would share classified information to hurt them?”

His statements came in the wake of controversial comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, that were criticized by members of both parties as anti-Semitic.