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This ‘weird committee’ isn’t calling it quits quite yet

Work of modernizing Congress is never done, witnesses say

Chairman Derek Kilmer right, and Rep. Rodney Davis attend the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in June. Davis said Wednesday he would support creating a modernization subcommittee on the House Administration Committee.
Chairman Derek Kilmer right, and Rep. Rodney Davis attend the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in June. Davis said Wednesday he would support creating a modernization subcommittee on the House Administration Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It felt almost like a graduation ceremony Wednesday at the final hearing of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, as witnesses and lawmakers alike celebrated their wins and dreamed of the future.

“This is the most important work going on in Congress today,” said Diane Hill of the Partnership for Public Service.

Hill’s organization is part of a constellation of about four dozen “fix Congress” groups that have closely followed the committee since its inception in 2019 and want to see its mission continue.

“There is a strong contingent outside of Congress that’s very engaged on these issues and they care deeply about them,” she said. “I don’t see the cohort going away.”

The panel has always had an expiration date, and is set to end in just a few short months at the conclusion of this Congress. During the hearing, Hill and her fellow witnesses proposed ways to keep the modernization flame burning.

Hill suggested several options, including a simple fix — renewing the committee in its current form. That appeared less popular with lawmakers, but her proposal of creating a modernization subcommittee in the House Administration panel has gotten more traction.

She also urged members to try to get the Senate more involved in the work of modernizing Congress, earning a few scoffs from those gathered in the room.

Rep. Rodney Davis, who sits on the select committee and also serves as ranking member of the House Administration panel, said he supports the subcommittee proposal.

“That to me is the most logical place for a permanent subcommittee,” the Illinois Republican said. “To focus solely on making this institution better.”

Davis, who lost a GOP primary, won’t be back next Congress, and on Wednesday he sat next to retiring Colorado Democrat and fellow ModCom member Ed Perlmutter. What happens next is out of their hands, he said.

“I’m not going to continue, Ed’s not going to continue,” Davis said. “It’s going to be up to those of you who are here in this institution to make sure that the great work these folks have put in and the staffers have put in isn’t forgotten.”

Though the committee known as ModCom can’t write legislation itself, it can make recommendations approved by a supermajority. Chairman Derek Kilmer and Vice Chairman William R. Timmons IV indicated they may formally recommend the subcommittee idea as the next step.

Such a subcommittee could lay the groundwork for future select committees convened every few terms, all with the same goal of making Congress more efficient and transparent. But it would require some finessing.

“Right now there’s only one Republican on each of the [Administration] subcommittees,” Timmons said. The South Carolina Republican said he’d like to see an evenly split group similar to the one he helps lead.

Lawmakers also heard testimony from House Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor and Casey Burgat of George Washington University.

During the hearing, members sat in their usual configuration — instead of being behind a dais, they sat around a table talking to the witnesses without rigid five-minute time limits. Civility is the rule instead of the exception, and that’s one reason Kilmer fondly referred to it as the “weird committee.”

Szpindor lauded what her office has accomplished thanks to prompting from ModCom, like creating a résumé bank and making improvements to staff orientation and human resources materials.

She hopes the committee will continue in some form, she said, since it has been an important way to get direct feedback from lawmakers on what they want to see support agencies like hers doing.

“Quite frankly, I believe one of the reasons over the years we have not always proved successful in delivering solutions is because we didn’t have that contact,” Szpindor said. “We didn’t have individuals there behind us helping us, championing us to move forward. So however it’s organized, we need that support.”

More recommendations

With the final hearing in its rearview mirror, the committee expects to continue adding more recommendations to the list of 171 it has made so far. A markup is slated for later this month.

Along with recommendations on how to keep modernization efforts alive, lawmakers are considering how to optimize scheduling on the Hill, a frequent gripe that played out in real time Wednesday. Members ping-ponged in and out of the hearing room as they ran from one event to the next.

Asked about her office’s effort to create a new digital calendar to reduce conflicts between hearings, Szpindor said it’s still in the early stages but has gotten a lot of attention.

“It is something that we are excited about,” she said.

“So am I,” said Georgia Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams.

Timmons, who has championed the topic and said he hopes to find other ways to ease scheduling conflicts, said that no matter what form future modernization efforts take, he and fellow members would chip away at implementing recommendations.

Reflecting on the legacy of the committee he joined as a freshman, he said it was an “honor” to work with Kilmer.

But Kilmer wasn’t ready to get too nostalgic just yet, saying he’d hold off on the valedictory remarks.

“I’ll wait until we get to our final markup,” he said.

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