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House leaders give modernization panel more time

A second year of work ahead for committee that seeks to make Congress more efficient

Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and vice chairman Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., are seen during a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress meeting in the Capitol in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and vice chairman Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., are seen during a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress meeting in the Capitol in March. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Like most any fixer-upper endeavor, renovating Congress for the modern era will take at least a year longer than originally planned.

The House’s temporary Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is on track to get more time to finish its effort to update the legislative branch amid the increasing political polarization of the 2020 elections. The House Rules Committee approved a rule Wednesday extending the modernization panel through next year. The full chamber voted Thursday, making the extension official.

The move came days after lawmakers and members of outside groups called on the House to extend the panel through next year. House leaders originally gave the committee one year to wrap up its work, which includes making recommendations to upgrade Capitol Hill’s technology and to improve working conditions for members and staff. 

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The panel does not have the authority to move legislation, only recommendations, and those recommendations require a two-thirds majority vote. The modernization committee is examining ideas for overhauling Congress’ budget and appropriations process as well as the congressional calendar. 

The panel, which unlike most on Capitol Hill is evenly split with six Democrats and six Republicans, is unusually bipartisan. Chairman Derek Kilmer of Washington and Georgia Republican Tom Graves, who serves as the vice chairman, have gone out of their way to display collegiality, including mixing up the seating chart so that Democrats sit next to Republicans instead of each party on one side.  

“It’s a real vote of confidence in the committee’s work to date,” 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. “It gives the select committee more time to produce more recommendations, which I got the impression they were looking to do.”

It also affords the panel’s members and staff additional time to work with the House Administration Committee and other committees that have jurisdiction to translate the recommendations into legislation.  

30-plus recommendations so far

“It’s important to get Congress working better on behalf of the American people. That’s what the Select Committee is about. It’s why we’ve already passed nearly 30 recommendations, and it’s why we’re working on additional reforms,” said Kilmer and Graves in a joint statement. “We are grateful to House leadership, our colleagues, civic groups and the American people for seeing the value of this work and ensuring the progress continues over the next year.”

The panel unanimously approved a slate of recommendations in May aimed at making more congressional information open to the public. Committee members approved another slate of recommendations in July urging lawmakers to create a centralized human resources hub for staffers and to require cybersecurity training. The summer recommendations also included making permanent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, updating the staff payroll system to semimonthly and creating a Congressional Leadership Academy to train lawmakers. 

Despite its agreement on those items, members of committee have said they are unlikely to take up more controversial recommendations, such as one to bring back earmarks, where the lawmakers disagree. 

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of California, several outside groups and academics wrote that the select committee had made “significant progress” and needed another year to continue the work.  

“It has held a dozen hearings and produced 29 unanimous, bipartisan recommendations to improve House technology, transparency, staff diversity and retention, accessibility and constituent engagement,” said the Nov. 6 letter from a coalition of groups, including Bipartisan Policy Center Action, Congressional Management Foundation, Issue One, Demand Progress, Partnership for Public Service and others. “These efforts to modernize Congress are an excellent start, but more work is needed to ensure a responsive, modern and accountable legislature.”

In addition to that letter, members of the Republican Study Committee and the New Democrat Coalition, as well as nearly 40 freshman members of Congress sent missives in the past week to House leaders calling for an extension. 

For this year, the modernization panel has operated on a budget just under $500,000, with four full-time aides, one fellow and a couple of interns. 

Kosar said the panel deserves a raise. “I would argue they definitely need an increase in their budget,” he said. 

A committee spokeswoman, Danielle Stewart, said she did not know whether there would be any changes to the budget next year.

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