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‘Fix Congress’ committee says farewell, but not for long, members hope

Modernization panel looks to rise from the dead in last batch of recommendations

Members of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, seen here in June, are feeling bullish about its future.
Members of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, seen here in June, are feeling bullish about its future. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress took a bow amid applause at what was billed as its final performance ever, but not before calling for an encore. 

The “Fix Congress” committee is set to disband permanently, but its biggest recommendation in its last report is to make sure that dissolution isn’t truly permanent and the report isn’t truly final. Congress should create a modernization subcommittee on the House Administration Committee, the report says. 

“Our work is not done. One of our recommendations is to continue this work as a subcommittee of House Admin. I hope that will happen and believe that will happen,” said Vice Chair William R. Timmons IV.

After the meeting on Thursday, the South Carolina Republican said he has spoken to staffers for the expected incoming speaker and House majority leader — Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, respectively — and that they support creating such a subcommittee.

The report also calls for authorizing a Modernization Select Committee “at least every fourth Congress.” 

While the subcommittee would focus its energies on implementing existing recommendations, the periodically reconstituted select committee would return every eight years, like a political nerd’s Brigadoon, to allow members to contemplate pathways toward a better-functioning Congress.

The report’s remaining suggestions fall in line with most of the 195 others already put forth by the bipartisan panel, which has focused on the logistical, technological and cultural issues that so frequently frustrate lawmakers. 

There is a call for a shared committee calendar tool, which would mitigate the scheduling snafus that frequently lead to members being asked to attend multiple hearings at once (Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams had to call in to Thursday’s meeting because of just such a conflict); another would look into speeding up floor votes by studying how often representatives vote late. The report also calls for more congressional delegations to foreign legislatures to learn from peer lawmaking bodies and for updates to the House’s travel reimbursement rules. 

As is its wont, the committee passed its final seven recommendations by voice vote, with all voting in favor except for Republican Beth Van Duyne of Texas. Van Duyne also voted against submitting the committee’s final report to the rest of the House. After the hearing, Van Duyne explained that she supported the creation of a subcommittee but felt that also regularly reconstituting the select committee periodically was overkill. 

The so-called ModCom was created at the start of the 116th Congress and was originally set to expire at its end, but it was renewed for another two years. Of its 202 total recommendations, more than 100 have been implemented so far, and others are in the works. 

After quickly dispensing with the formal business, the meeting took a valedictory turn. Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Timmons gushed about their colleagues and staff, sounding hopeful notes about the work that has been done and pausing repeatedly for applause. 

Kilmer even drew upon a commencement speech that former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary John Gardner gave at Cornell University in 1968. “He spoke about the importance of institutional stewardship — that we actually need to invest in making our institutions stronger,” Kilmer said. “And he spoke of the importance of people being what he called ‘loving critics’ of the institutions in which they worked.”

Kilmer said ModCom was full of loving critics, contrasting them with Gardner’s “unloving critics” and “uncritical lovers [who] went about their business smothering their institutions with love without thinking about how to help them improve.” 

“The story of the last 30 years of this institution is people treating Congress like the piñata at the party,” Kilmer said. “The most popular thing a politician can do is bash this institution. But if it’s focused on … demolition and not improvement, that is a problem.”

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