‘Fix Congress’ panel enters final year with ‘dry topics,’ vows not to rest

‘We intend to run through the finish line,’ vice chairman says

Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and vice chair William R. Timmons IV, R-S.C.,  held the first hearing of what's likely to be the final year of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and vice chair William R. Timmons IV, R-S.C., held the first hearing of what's likely to be the final year of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 20, 2022 at 4:23pm

The House Clerk’s office is tired of playing legislative telephone.

Clerk Cheryl Johnson, who oversees many record-keeping-related tasks in the House, said her staff is working toward a simpler future. Right now, Congress has four different formats for writing and viewing legislation, which must be translated or reformatted several times during the lawmaking process. The goal is to get to one.

“A critical but often dry topic to discuss is standard-setting,” she said Thursday during a House Modernization Committee hearing. “However, it is a delight to know that a small dedicated group of staff from my office, the Senate Secretary’s office, GPO and the Library of Congress and others are doing just that.”

Johnson said such work lays an important foundation for modernizing the lawmaking process, touting a past example — setting up a digital “eHopper” system where lawmakers can submit bills, instead of a simple wooden box.

The “Fix Congress” committee entered its final stretch by hearing progress reports from some of the House agencies charged with implementing its recommendations to improve the legislative branch.

The virtual check-in hearing included testimony from Johnson and Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor. Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton submitted written testimony but did not attend the hearing because of a scheduling conflict.

It’s the first hearing of the year, in what’s likely the last year for the panel, which has already been extended several times.

“While we’ve seen some implementation success thus far, that does not mean it’s time to rest,” said Vice Chairman William R. Timmons IV. “The committee is authorized for one more year, and we intend to run through the finish line. There is much left to do to make Congress work better for the American people.”

Though the hearing Thursday morning was held online (it aired on C-SPAN and, in a new twist, was supposed to stream on Twitch until technical difficulties intervened), the committee sought to retain its unique style. Lawmakers took turns asking questions without the rigid five-minute time limit enforced in other committees, and witnesses chimed in.

Both Timmons, a South Carolina Republican, and Chairman Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington, sought updates from Johnson and Szpindor, but also flipped things around, soliciting suggestions on what the panel could do to improve the way their agencies work.

“I really think that we are good where we are right now,” Szpindor said, laughing at Kilmer’s question. “We still have a lot of the recommendations — we’re doing it a phase at a time, and will take us another year or so to complete.”

During her testimony, the CAO, whose agency has put in place an HR Hub and coaching program at the so-called ModCom’s urging, announced her office’s newest initiative. The agency is currently hiring and training “world-class leadership consultants” as part of its push to create a Congressional Leadership Academy, offering training specifically for members of Congress.

The curriculum would focus on “the leadership, management, and resiliency skills necessary to thrive in our challenging and dynamic environment,” she said, teasing that more information would come later this month.

Johnson testified that her agency was also working toward a solution on how to reimagine the electronic filing system for lobbying disclosures, which hasn’t received much more than maintenance since it went into use in 2006.

When asked by Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., about the system, she said that’s still in the planning stage with the House Appropriations Committee, and the Senate must be aligned on the scope and desired outcomes.

“The committee hasn’t given us direction in terms of how far we should go,” she said.

ModCom was initially authorized for a calendar year at the beginning of the 116th Congress in 2019 and was then extended until the end of the Congress. It was authorized again in 2021, this time for the entirety of the 117th Congress. Its mission is to hold hearings and develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient and transparent on behalf of the American people.

As it enters its final year, the committee is expected to tackle some difficult questions like the continuity of Congress, Kilmer said last year. In October, the panel released a progress report, tracking the 97 recommendations it made last Congress, and whether they’d been implemented. More than 60 percent of them had, the report found.

The panel is expected to release an update in February on the additional 45 recommendations that were passed so far this Congress.

When the panel was formed, it studied the efforts of previous modernization panels and sought to make the most of its limited time. One of the ways it sought to set itself apart was to approve recommendations on a rolling basis, and with final destinations like the CAO or House Administration Committee in mind.

“We're trying to do this work with you, not to you,” said Kilmer as he closed the hearing.