House modernization leaders seek consensus despite hurdles

Select committee is a long way from solving institutional problems

Reps. Derek Kilmer, right, and Tom Graves, leaders of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, are seeking ways to improve congressional operations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Reps. Derek Kilmer, right, and Tom Graves, leaders of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, are seeking ways to improve congressional operations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 10, 2019 at 5:30am

With 2019 half done, so is the lifespan of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. 

And the panel is still a long way from solving some of the big-scope institutional problems that House leaders asked it to. When it comes to some of the thornier political items — such as lawmaker pay raises and resurrecting earmarks — the panel is unlikely to agree.

That said, its leaders have an ambitious schedule as they look to tackle numerous issues on which bipartisan consensus can be found before the panel’s mandate ends in December.

[First big bipartisan vote establishes House select committee on modernizing Congress]

“We’re working under the assumption we’re at the midway point,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Washington Democrat who chairs the committee. “We feel good that we’re kind of pushing out recommendations and building momentum. Having said that, there’s still a ton to do.”

So far, the panel has held six hearings, including its first on March 12. Kilmer and the top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia, have hired three full-time staffers and three fellows and are operating with a budget just shy of $500,000. The panel unanimously approved a slate of recommendations in May aimed at making more congressional information open to the public.

“Tom and I made a decision upfront to figure out where we could find common ground, figure out where we could make recommendations and then move,” Kilmer said. 

The select committee is supposed to offer recommendations for rehabilitating Congress in technology and cybersecurity, procedures and scheduling as well as improving staff retention and diversity.

Later this month, Kilmer and Graves plan to look deeper into technology matters, while September is likely to bring hearings on the budget and appropriations process.  

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Hold the partisan fireworks

In the committee’s first months, Kilmer and Graves have taken a bipartisan tack that is itself uncommon and usually elusive on Capitol Hill. Graves’ title is vice chairman, instead of ranking member, and they share the staff and budget equally. Six Republicans and six Democrats make up the membership, and to adopt recommendations, they need at least two-thirds of those voting.

“I have a unique perspective, being in the minority, and that is I don’t feel like I’m in the minority, I feel like I’m a co-equal,” said Graves during a joint interview in Kilmer’s office. “When you have that internal feeling, there’s more buy-in. … I think it is an opportunity for other committees to look at. What we have seen is that we might be the most productive committee in the House of Representatives right now at the current time.”

At some hearings, the lawmakers have switched up their seating order, with Democrats and Republicans interspersed instead of sitting with their party colleagues. It’s a symbolic gesture, of course, but does speak to the collaboration the panel is trying to create.

“We haven’t seen any partisan fireworks or mugging for the camera,” said Kevin Kosar, a leader of the nonpartisan Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group and vice president of policy at the R Street Institute, a think tank with libertarian roots. “We’ve seen good bipartisan inquiry into really important stuff.”

Brad Fitch, the president of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, who has testified before the committee, said the members are doing what few on Capitol Hill are doing: looking at the institution of Congress and its future.

Fitch’s group helped facilitate a daylong retreat in the Library of Congress for the committee members, he said, and he found them “engaged, thoughtful, they were funny, they were honest. It was just a really exciting thing. The committee has an excellent chance to really make a mark on the institution.”

Daniel Schuman, policy director at the liberal advocacy group Demand Progress, has also followed the committee since its inception and said it seems the members are delving into issues that matter and that could overhaul the institution. He contrasts it with last year’s Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, which was unable to come up with any recommendations. Kilmer served on that panel, too.

“They’re building agreement, if not consensus,” said Schuman, who regularly attends the committee’s hearings. The panel’s members hail from progressive, libertarian, conservative and moderate wings. “So it is possible for them, if they recommend something, much of it will happen in some form.”

But the committee itself can’t approve legislation. The House Administration Committee will take the lead on moving the Modernization panel’s transparency recommendations in bill form. 

Kilmer is aware of the potential failure and is taking a different approach than the budget overhaul panel. “It does us no good if we make recommendations and nothing comes of it,” he said.

When the committee looks at budget and appropriations, don’t expect it to agree on earmarks. But Kilmer sees areas of accord, such as biennial budgeting, based on his service on the unsuccessful budget overhaul panel last year. And that’s where he’d like to start. 

The committee is examining ways to improve hiring and retention of staff, including recruiting more diverse aides. They’ve brought in outside experts on human resources management and have floated ideas about centralizing such operations for all offices.

Updating on a shoestring

Meredith McGehee, who runs the overhaul group Issue One, said she sees signs the lawmakers on the committee are invested in the project but noted the small staff and short timeline as big hurdles to making serious, lasting changes. 

A committee tasked with looking at Congress’ lack of capacity has itself a capacity problem, she added.

“It’s under-resourced,” she said. “I think they’re doing the best they can on less than a half million dollars.”

She said in addition to making recommendations on technology, the congressional schedule and staff retention, the panel should identify other areas that it could tackle in a second year, if there is an extension.

No matter how long the panel sticks around, it may not be willing to grapple with some of the trickier political issues. Even though staff salaries are tied to lawmakers’ pay — and the committee is looking at staff compensation and retention — the panel won’t be the place to fight it out, Graves indicated. If it’s something lawmakers have an interest in, “they should probably talk to their own party leadership,” he said.

One area of apparent common ground is on cybersecurity and technology. Panel members Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat, and Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican, are looking deeper at tech matters.

Kilmer and Graves both highlighted the need to shore up cybersecurity on Capitol Hill, ensuring that constituent information stays secure. “The legislative branch is a high-value target,” Kilmer said.

Given the committee’s planned short duration, Kilmer and Graves are already mindful of its legacy.

“There’s a combination of aggravation, disappointment and sadness as the American people look at the inability of Congress to solve big problems,” Kilmer said. “And if this committee can be part of making some systemic changes that at least move the needle on behalf of the American people, then it’ll be tallied as one of the successful ones.”