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Modernization panel OKs latest recommendations, sprinkles Congress with its ‘secret sauce’

Panel tackles a divisive topic for Congress — civility

Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and Vice Chairman William Timmons, R-S.C., attend the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress markup hearing on Wednesday.
Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and Vice Chairman William Timmons, R-S.C., attend the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress markup hearing on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A drab room in the Capitol complex once again felt like an oasis Wednesday morning, as the “fix Congress” panel approved its latest set of recommendations. 

Elsewhere on the Hill, tempers flared and lawmakers traded blame over how much legislating was left to do before the end of the year. But for the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, the word of the day was “civility.”

“Congress was designed to be a deliberative body, where members not only speak but listen,” Chairman Derek Kilmer said in his opening statement. “It takes a lot more effort than just coming up with quick political zingers to throw back and forth.”  

The panel agreed on 25 new ideas to improve the legislative branch, covering three broad topics — civility, congressional support agencies and evidence-based policymaking. Now Kilmer hopes the rest of the House will take note, though the suggestions are just that, suggestions.

Known for its low-key and collegial vibe, the committee (or ModCom, as members like to call it) made quick work of its business meeting, moving 22 of the items by voice vote. Yet it wasn’t all harmonious agreement. The more controversial recommendations came at the end, and for the first time in the panel’s short history, one didn’t make it through. 

The idea was to let two lawmakers serve as first sponsors on legislation, instead of just a single person getting the glory — a change meant to reward bipartisanship, since the pair would have to hail from different parties. Four Republicans voted against the recommendation, denying it the required supermajority. (Two of the panel’s 12 members missed the vote.)

Texas Rep. Beth Van Duyne said she voted “no” because she didn’t want to tread on the toes of the Rules Committee. 

“If [Rules] wanted to change it, they’d have an opportunity to do that,” she said after the hearing.

Three other items drew opposition but remained above the eight-vote threshold needed to succeed, including a recommendation to create more bipartisan coworking spaces for staff.

While the dissent was unusual for a committee that prides itself on consensus and issued all but one of its previous six recommendation slates with a united front, Kilmer said the panel’s latest effort was still impressive.

“We’re taking on some stickier subjects — the issues around civility and collaboration in Congress are really challenging,” the Washington Democrat said during a Tuesday interview. “And when we started off having hearings on this, I wasn’t certain that we would make any recommendations in this space.”

Fourteen of the recommendations approved Wednesday are aimed at improving civility among lawmakers and staff, including one calling for less partisanship at the new member orientations that kick off every Congress. The panel also urged committees to create bipartisan websites and give members a way to submit feedback on how well things are working. 

Both Kilmer and the vice chairman of the panel, South Carolina Republican Rep. William R. Timmons IV, said they were passionate about the civility recommendations. They see their committee as one that leads by example, holding roundtable hearings that have more flexible rules for members to question witnesses. 

“We’ve got to find a way to infect the rest of Congress with the secret sauce that we have, understanding that we have structural components that mandate us working together,” Timmons said Tuesday in an interview.

Another group of recommendations focuses on strengthening congressional support agencies. The panel called on the Library of Congress to make nonpartisan summaries available for all legislation that receives a vote, and urged the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office to improve their “customer experience” by gathering feedback.  

Rounding out its suggestions, the panel asked Congress to establish a bipartisan, bicameral Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking to encourage better use of data in the legislative process.

While all those suggestions cover a lot of ground, Kilmer said Congress’ problems can be found everywhere, and so must the solutions.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, more like silver buckshot,” Kilmer said.

The panel was initially authorized for a calendar year at the beginning of the 116th Congress in 2019 and was then extended until the end of that Congress. It was authorized again in 2021, this time for the entirety of the 117th Congress.

ModCom can do all the recommending it wants, but that doesn’t mean anything will change, since it doesn’t have the power to move actual bills. But the panel monitors whether the legislative branch is making progress on its wish list. It released its latest report in October, tracking the 97 recommendations it made last Congress and whether they’ve gone anywhere. More than 60 percent of them have, the report said.

The panel releases recommendations on a rolling basis and will keep doing so until its mission expires, Timmons said. There’s still plenty of time left before the next term begins, perhaps with a new majority, to address “all the hard stuff,” he said, including questions about the continuity of Congress. 

“We still have longer than we have ever had,” Timmons said. “I have things I’m passionate about, the chairman has things he’s passionate about, and we’re working together to try to figure out how we can thread the needle and get eight votes.”

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