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The fix-up-Congress committee takes on a fresh agenda for 2020

With impeachment done, modernization panel looks at more civility and new technology

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 in March 2019. (Photo By 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 in March 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s almost like an alternate universe.

Fresh off the bitterly partisan and acrimonious House impeachment vote, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress approved a slate of recommendations Thursday including some aimed at boosting civility and bipartisanship in the legislative branch.  

“It’s a bright spot right now,” said the panel’s top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia, during an interview Wednesday afternoon as he and his colleagues prepared to vote on the impeachment of President Donald Trump. “And a little place of refuge for folks to store and to bank and to offer input of ideas of how to make this place work better.”

[Pelosi shrugs off GOP gripes about her holding onto articles of impeachment]

The committee, which began this year as a 12-month project, won approval recently to carry into 2020. It buys the panel extra time to consider ideas to fix up Congress, but it also means the dozen members, evenly split between the parties, will operate with a contentious election year as backdrop and will likely have a compressed schedule amid the coming political conventions and campaigning.

House leaders have tasked the panel with offering recommendations to make the legislative branch function better in the modern area. Graves and Chairman Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat, are looking at everything from upgrading congressional technology; staff retention and diversity; overhauling the budget and appropriations process and perhaps even the Congressional calendar; and, yes, ways of improving civility on Capitol Hill.

So far this year, the Modernization committee has voted unanimously to urge the chamber to update the lobbying disclosure system, to create a human resources hub for all lawmakers and staff, to mandate cybersecurity training for members and to re-establish something like the former Office of Technology Assessment to help lawmakers better understand emerging technologies.

The new recommendations approved Thursday include one endorsing bipartisan retreats for lawmakers and their families. The panel recommended that lawmakers band together to purchase office technology in bulk as a way to save taxpayer money and that they rename the Franking Commission to the House Communications Standards Commission. They also suggested that members update House procedures to allow members to electronically add, or remove, their names as cosponsors of legislation. 

“The good news here is the committee actually functions,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of the group Issue One, which lobbies for congressional overhauls. “In these days of impeachment, you have a committee that has figured out a way to concentrate on common ground, and that is just pretty remarkable.”

The Modernization panel does not have legislative authority but its members, working with the House Administration Committee, recently introduced a bill that includes nearly 30 of its previous suggestions. No action has been scheduled yet on that measure.

2020 priorities  

In the coming year, Kilmer said the Modernization panel is likely to continue to grapple with finding agreement on updates to the budget and appropriations process, the congressional schedule, and procedure and rules matters, among others. 

“We’ve done something a little bit unique in that we’re turning recommendations into legislation,” Kilmer said during the Wednesday interview in his office along with Graves, who is not seeking re-election in 2020.

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Kilmer acknowledged that, even with the extra year, the panel won’t be able to figure out every issue that ails the Congress. Plus, there is no companion effort in Senate — another potential roadblock to sweeping changes.

“There’s things that might need to marinate a little longer, and they may end up migrating closer to our deadline,” Kilmer said.

He is eyeing the August recess to move additional recommendations, and then the committee must produce a report by October.

Some of the issues “may bleed into future congresses,” or get punted to other panels, Kilmer added. “That’s not inconceivable that we’ll have some things that fall into that territory. Our desire is to be as comprehensive as possible to try to just make congress function better on behalf of the American people.”

Graves says he’s committed to remaining in office through the end of this Congress and seeing through the Modernization project. Two other Republicans on the panel — Susan Brooks of Indiana and Rob Woodall of Georgia — are also retiring from the House at the end of the 116th Congress.

“For me, this is a great way to end my federal service,” Graves said during the Wednesday interview in Kilmer’s office, “to partner with Derek to propose an outline in how this institution can function better, and that’s a great capstone.”

He said the way Kilmer has run the panel — sharing the committee’s nearly $500,000 budget and staff members equally — has made it a worthwhile experience.

Behind enemy lines  

Kilmer and Graves have met with outside groups pushing for reforms, and they’ve taken meetings with lawmakers from across the political spectrum.

Kilmer recently spoke to the conservative Republican Study Committee, of which Graves is a member, and the two said it was the first time a Democrat had appeared before the group in recent memory.

“He was warmly welcomed with applause and great input from the members,” Graves said.

The RSC members suggested that the select committee look at issues around lawmaker and staff security clearances and the protocols for handling sensitive information.

“We walked out of that room, and I said to our staff, ‘Sounds like we’ve got to dig into the issue of security clearances,’” Kilmer recalled.

Kilmer says he had no qualms about visiting the RSC, adding it’s part of his collaborative approach to the committee, which has included having Republicans and Democrats sit next to each other during hearings instead of members of each party clustering on one side.

In other committees, he said, Democrats and Republicans often work in opposition. “Democrats use their half to hire people who put on blue jerseys and Republicans hire people who put on red jerseys, and we kind of made the decision not to do that,” he said. “Everybody’s wearing ‘fix Congress’ jerseys.”

Despite the bipartisan tone, outside groups see challenges ahead for the panel and its legacy over the coming months.

McGehee said 2020 will be fraught with political concerns that could inhibit the panel’s ability to tackle more controversial subjects, including even recommendations that congressional committees hire more staff members, which would cost money. Both McGehee and Kevin Kosar, a leader of the nonpartisan Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group and vice president of policy at the R Street Institute, say they wonder whether the panel can put in place a system to consider updates continually.

“When it goes out of business, what happens then, does the House just go back to not reforming itself?” Kosar said. “I think that would be a bad thing. Reform should be a perennial practice.”

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