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They tried to modernize Congress. Now time is running out

What will happen to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress?

It was never meant to last. But members of the House Modernization Committee hope to see their work carried on. From left, Rep. Rodney Davis, Chair Derek Kilmer, and Vice Chair William R. Timmons IV attend a hearing in June.
It was never meant to last. But members of the House Modernization Committee hope to see their work carried on. From left, Rep. Rodney Davis, Chair Derek Kilmer, and Vice Chair William R. Timmons IV attend a hearing in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

They are the oddballs and the true believers on Capitol Hill, the ones who think civility is possible in these uncivil times.

For four years, they have worked to “fix Congress” — and tried to live by their own advice. It came close to falling apart.

Cool reflection seemed out of the question last year after Jan. 6, when Republicans challenged the outcome of the presidential election. It was hard enough to keep lawmakers from brawling in the hallways, let alone convince them that what the institution really needs is just some tender loving care.

For members of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, it was a test of faith. Some approached Chairman Derek Kilmer to share their doubts.

But Kilmer had a plan — when members of both parties arrived at their committee retreat, an outside facilitator was waiting.

“We had a bipartisan conversation about the sixth of January,” the Washington Democrat said. “I don’t know anyplace else where that type of conversation was happening between Democrats and Republicans in a structured way, with an eye toward conflict resolution.”

That uncynical optimism is what the committee has come to do best. And at its final hearing Wednesday, it will take on one more question: How should the House keep modernization efforts alive after the committee ends?

Known as ModCom for short, the committee was never meant to last forever. Members will hear proposals about what to do next, with testimony from House Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor and two outside congressional observers, Diane Hill of the Partnership for Public Service and Casey Burgat of George Washington University.

Kilmer said he’s keeping an open mind but feels a sense of urgency.

“I think it’s very likely we will make a recommendation to say, one: Don’t wait another 30 years,” Kilmer said.

A new subcommittee?

One solution to keep the torch for change burning might be to create a subcommittee in a standing committee like House Administration, said advocacy group Demand Progress.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Kilmer and Vice Chairman William R. Timmons IV, the group also suggests other steps, like creating a modernization advisory committee and encouraging more scholarly study of Congress.

“It is imperative that we continue to look beyond Congress’s day-to-day operations and think anew about what Congress must become to meet the needs of our democracy,” the letter said.

Timmons said he would support a plan that would bridge the gap between now and any future select committee.

“I think it’s a great way to use a subcommittee on House Administration to prepare for the next one,” he said. “It’s implementation and then it’s prep, so it’s just a more efficient process.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, who sits on ModCom and serves as ranking member of the House Administration panel, had been seen as a potential torchbearer in the next Congress. But the Illinois Republican won’t be back — he lost a GOP primary against freshman Rep. Mary Miller after redistricting pushed them into a head-to-head matchup.

‘Stable and calming’

For Timmons, the legacy of ModCom isn’t just about its official mission of finding ways to make Congress more efficient and transparent. Some of his closest friendships across the aisle were forged in the committee.

“Republicans and Democrats can work together,” the South Carolina Republican said. “If we allow members to build relationships, to build trust, they can still get things done.”

Though time is running short, Timmons and Kilmer said they are hoping to release another round of recommendations, including some aimed at improving the House schedule and minimizing travel days for lawmakers.

“All these things are challenges that are really difficult to tackle, but I think we’re going to give it a go here toward the end of the year,” Timmons said.

Timmons was one of several ModCom members who journeyed to London and Brussels last week to learn how their legislatures operate. They were looking for ideas on how to boost congressional research functions, among other things.

The trip took on a surreal quality when, as they waited to meet with the speaker of the British Parliament, news broke that Queen Elizabeth II had died.

“A very sad day here in London, England,” fellow ModCom member Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said in a video he posted to Twitter. “She was a stable and calming influence across the globe.”

History lessons

The last panel tasked with modernizing Congress was formed as a joint committee in 1992 and ended the following year, with little action taken on its recommendations until several years later.

Lawmakers didn’t want to repeat that model, and, since 2019, the current House panel has doled out 171 recommendations in eight tranches. It has also sought to make that advice actionable by tailoring it to specific house agencies or committees.

Though ModCom can’t write legislation itself, 119 of its recommendations have so far been implemented or have seen meaningful action toward implementation.

For example, the House has acted on its calls to reintroduce a more transparent version of earmarks, make the Office of Diversity and Inclusion permanent and raise the pay ceiling for staff above what members earn.

Other highlights include new nonpartisan programming during member orientation, more automation in bill tracking and obtaining co-sponsors, and a centralized human resources hub maintained by the chief administrative officer.

Szpindor, who will testify Wednesday, is expected to tell the committee that more than 2,600 House staffers attended virtual and in-person courses put on by the CAO Coach program, which is expanding with two extra coaches.

Recommendations have been tucked into House rules packages, fiscal omnibus bills and even some stand-alone resolutions, like one introduced last week.

That resolution would codify 32 recommendations into House rules, including making the Capitol more accessible for people with disabilities.

It also calls on the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to conduct a study on how to make internships more accessible and would direct the House Administration Committee to reevaluate the formula determining member office budgets.

It’s unclear when the legislation may get a House vote, but it could be as soon as September’s work period.

A repair mission

Kilmer, a former consultant for the firm McKinsey & Co. who took office almost a decade ago, said he’s been on a mission to help fix Congress ever since.

When he was contemplating his first run, Kilmer and his wife — self-described nerds — made a pro and con list at a restaurant until the sounds of staff vacuuming floors shooed them away. The couple’s cons included worries over being away from their young children and his disdain for political dysfunction.

But further mulling it over, Kilmer said that second con began to feel like a pro.

“Hey, maybe that’s the reason to do this,” he said, describing his thoughts. “It’s because it’s a mess.”

Stepping into ModCom hearings, some may think they walked into some parallel congressional universe. The committee’s hearings just look different.

Members sit interspersed — Democrat next to Republican — not behind a dais, but rather around a conference table to encourage discussion without rigid five-minute time limits enforced elsewhere.

Committee leaders even hired a joint staff instead of picking them separately. That way, staffers aren’t wearing blue or red jerseys — “they’re all putting on jerseys that say, ‘Hey, let’s fix Congress,’” Kilmer said.

For Kilmer, it can sometimes feel like he’s swimming against the current of vitriol and cynicism in Washington.

“It is unusual,” Kilmer said. “When I talk to my constituents about the work of this committee and say it’s been nicknamed the ‘Fix Congress committee,’ the response is either chuckles or people offering to pray for me.”

And perhaps those prayers were answered, even if it was just in one committee.

“It’s hard to do things differently,” Kilmer said. “But I think one of my main takeaways is if you want things to work differently, do things differently.”

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