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Lawmakers seek funds to improve the workings of Congress

Bipartisan leaders of modernization panel urge support for their recommendations during the annual appropriations process

Rep. Derek Kilmer is concerned about a "brain drain" as talented staff leave the Hill for more lucrative opportunities.
Rep. Derek Kilmer is concerned about a "brain drain" as talented staff leave the Hill for more lucrative opportunities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The leaders of a bipartisan panel tasked with modernizing Congress on Wednesday urged the House Appropriations Committee to fund several changes they say would improve the lives of members and staff as well as how the institution itself functions.

Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and South Carolina Republican William R. Timmons IV asked appropriators to help the House Modernization of Congress Committee implement several of the 97 recommendations it made during the last Congress.

Kilmer, chair of the panel and a member of the Appropriations Committee, pushed for funding to improve salaries, benefits, training opportunities and the work-life balance of congressional staffers to try to keep more of them from leaving the legislative branch for other career opportunities.

“The ongoing brain drain leaves Congress relying on lobbyists for policy expertise, and that’s not the system the framers intended,” Kilmer said during the spending panel’s annual “Members Day” hearing.

Kilmer said the Modernization panel wants appropriators to include report language in the fiscal 2022 Legislative Branch spending bill for a “thorough and updated evaluation” of the formula used to determine how much each House member gets annually in the Members Representational Allowance.

The effort to increase staffer pay to stem high turnover rates among staff is backed by key House leaders, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries. The pair wrote to appropriators earlier this year to advocate for a 20 percent increase in funding for MRAs, for committees and for leadership offices to allow for staff salary boosts.

Advocates and lawmakers have voiced concerns in recent years about overworked and underpaid staff leading to high turnover rates and forcing lawmakers to lean on lobbyists and outside groups for deep expertise on policy issues.

Appropriators should also provide funding for the chief administrative officer to create “institutionwide standards” for onboarding and training for employees as well as a pilot “congressional leadership academy” for members, Kilmer said.

Each member’s Capitol Hill office operates like its own small business, with its own budget and personnel policies — effectively, 435 fiefdoms with their own rules. The Modernization panel proposed centralizing some essential human resources functions to both take the burden off individual offices and ensure more standardized processes.

Lawmakers, staff and advocates have told the Modernization panel that most staff and some lawmakers are never trained on how to manage employees, which can lead to ineffective teams or toxic work environments.

Timmons, the Modernization Committee’s vice chair, urged appropriators to approve other bipartisan proposals from the panel, including for bipartisan retreats for members at the beginning of each Congress and for establishing a members-only space in the Capitol “to encourage more relationship building.”

He urged the panel to provide funding for the House clerk to create a common committee calendar on its website “that identifies member committee conflicts in real time.”

“By identifying and collecting data on committee conflicts, we can begin to develop solutions to create a more efficient and productive committee schedule,” Timmons said.

During the Modernization panel’s Members Day hearing earlier this year, lawmakers urged support for such a centralized system to help manage their time. They described being double- or triple-booked for hearings and markups, forcing them to miss key testimony, ask repetitive questions and not give their full attention to important issues as they scramble between committee commitments.

Constituent communications

Timmons encouraged appropriators to remove the cost of constituent communications from lawmakers’ MRA accounts and instead “create a shared account for member communications.” Making the change, he argued, would free up additional funding in members’ accounts to increase staff salaries.

He also called for funding so the chief administrative officer can help offices with constituent casework by creating constituent forms that “can be viewed, edited and electronically signed.”

The expenditures necessary to implement the Modernization panel’s recommendations would be funded through the Legislative Branch appropriations bill, which is already in the spotlight this year in the aftermath of clear security failures during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

While some of the security issues would be addressed in the $1.9 billion supplemental spending bill that the House passed in May, Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, has acknowledged that his committee’s fiscal 2022 bill will still include costs associated with Jan. 6 and needed security transformations.

The costs of hardening the security posture on Capitol Hill and district offices, combined with spending on modernizing congressional operations, has the potential to mark an unprecedented increase in the Legislative Branch bill’s funding totals.

By law, the White House includes congressional recommendations for the Legislative Branch measure in its annual budget request.

For fiscal 2022, the total would be roughly $5.9 billion, an 11 percent boost above the current year. That would be a substantially larger increase over the past decade, though if recent history is any guide, lawmakers may end up trimming their own proposed budget for next year.

In the past two years, Congress has cut about 5 percentage points from increases proposed earlier in the year for Legislative Branch accounts as lawmakers have had to make choices within overall nondefense spending limits and adjust to changed conditions during the year. Some proposed funding could potentially migrate over to the emergency supplemental security bill, especially if House-Senate talks on that measure drag into the fall.

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