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It’s back: Modernization panel finds a new home under House Administration

Efforts to drag Congress into the 21st century will officially continue

Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., takes his place as chairman of the House Administration Committee on Thursday. Members voted to establish a new subcommittee to keep modernization efforts alive.
Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., takes his place as chairman of the House Administration Committee on Thursday. Members voted to establish a new subcommittee to keep modernization efforts alive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The “fix Congress” panel that officially disbanded last session will return in the 118th Congress in a different form.

The House Administration Committee on Thursday established a new subcommittee — a reincarnation of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, or ModCom, that first convened in 2019.

One of ModCom’s final recommendations before it dissolved at the end of 2022 was to create such a subcommittee to keep its efforts alive. But with shifting power in the House, the fate of ModCom was unclear, even with broad, bipartisan support for the move.

In the end, Republicans went for the idea. “To their credit, that’s what the majority is doing,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., the former ModCom chair. 

The House Administration Committee voted to create the subcommittee as part of the rules package it adopted at Thursday’s organizational meeting.

The subcommittee will be charged with continuing “the important work that the select committee carried out in the last two congresses, with a focus on implementing many of those bipartisan ideas,” said House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis.

Kilmer, who is new this year to the House Administration Committee, will be ranking member on the subcommittee, working across from subcommittee Chair Stephanie Bice, R-Okla. It will include a total of four members — equally divided between the majority and minority, in keeping with ModCom tradition.

The other members are Mike Carey, R-Ohio, and Joseph D. Morelle, D-N.Y., who also serves as ranking member of the full committee.

Bice, who is now in her second term, said she first became interested in improving House operations after her freshman orientation. She was disappointed in how it was run and submitted a list of proposed changes to now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“I think that spurred a conversation around whether or not I had an interest in serving on this committee,” she said. 

Before the select committee disbanded at the end of the 117th Congress, it issued a final report with more than 200 recommendations on a range of topics, from outdated technology to cultural and logistical problems. Of those, 45 recommendations have been fully implemented, and 87 have been partially implemented.

The group was “an engine for change,” according to Daniel Schuman, policy director at the advocacy group Demand Progress. Schuman said the House historically has undertaken modernization efforts more sporadically, sometimes waiting up to 20 or 25 years before bringing its operations up to date. 

The last panel tasked with modernizing Congress before ModCom convened as a joint committee in 1992 and ended a year later with little impact.

The select committee, on the other hand, tried to drag the legislative branch into the 21st century, with some surprising success.

“There was modernization work that was happening before the committee was created,” Schuman said. “But people often didn’t know who to talk to or how to talk about modernization. There wasn’t an obvious set of people who cared about it and curated that information.”

In its four-year tenure, ModCom successfully pushed the House 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, for example. Those changes were adopted via House rules packages, fiscal omnibus bills and some stand-alone resolutions.

The select committee became known for its quirks. Meetings were held around a conference table, with Democrats and Republicans interspersed and without the five-minute time limit for speakers that dominates many other congressional hearings. The committee also hired joint staff to promote a sense of camaraderie, rather than having separate majority and minority staff.

Whether the conference table and collegiality will carry over remains to be seen. But the subcommittee will set out to implement the recommendations laid out by its predecessor, according to House Administration Committee leaders.

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