Modernization committee leaders weigh in on continuity of operations, reopening

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Congress has been no less challenged by the pandemic than federal agencies. Proxy voting, online hearings, difficulties in dealing with constituents. The chair and vice chair of the select committee on the modernization of Congress have been on the case, exploring best practices. Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and Georgia Republican Tom Graves joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Joining me now, Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer. Mr. Kilmer Good to have you on.

Derek Kilmer: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: And Georgia Republican Tom Graves. Representative Graves, good to have you on.

Tom Graves: Great to be back. Thanks for having us.

Tom Temin: And let’s start with Congress itself. We’ve heard so many stories about should there be a quorum, should there not be a quorum and the proxy voting. How would you rate the operation of the House anyhow during this really tough time for members and the staff? Representative Kilmer, why don’t we start with you.

Derek Kilmer: I think there’s a few different things at play. One, each member in their districts is really active right now and has been through the course of this pandemic — in part because there’s a lot of holes in the dam, and I think most members of Congress and their staffs are trying to use every finger and every toe to plug those holes. Some of that is just doing really active case work with local businesses or, you know, there’s members of Congress, myself included, who become procurement professionals when it comes to personal protective equipment and testing capacity. So there’s a lot of active work happening in our districts. And some of it’s also just making sure that as resources have been passed by Congress, things like the paycheck Protection Program, obviously, these tools in the toolbox are only helpful if your constituents know about them. So I think most members have been also really active in that regard. And then Congress has a body. Obviously this is a really important time for both legislating to happen and for oversight to occur. And I would say that it probably varies by committee, Tom Graves and I are both on the Appropriations Committee and both of us have been active on phone calls with administration officials and in regular discussions through the appropriations process. I think you’ve seen other committees begin to have virtual hearings or virtual discussions, you know, with an eye towards figuring out how do we keep moving the ball forward on behalf of the American people, even in the midst of a pandemic and social distancing and all of those limitations.

Tom Temin: And Representative Graves, how tied in our field office technologies with the main Washington technologies in the House and in the House office buildings? And what are some of the difficulties you think members are having on that end, especially at the local offices dealing with constituents and everything from flag requests to desires to be heard in person?

Tom Graves: Yeah, it’s a great question. And this has been a remarkable 90 days of adjustment and adaptation. I would say by all members in different capacities and different offices in different districts, how to manage some of the challenges that the chairman referenced. And, you know, we’ve seen in the district offices that every office is managed is a little bit different. Some moved to a more of a total virtual element, or a hybrid of that, where staff can come in one or two staff per day and sort of rotate through that, to maybe oftentimes not any staff throughout the week or have to work remotely. But that didn’t come without some challenges in the beginning of connectivity back to all the files and the data and the resources that there would be normal access to through secure networks, let’s say — making sure there are enough laptops available for staff to take to their their own personal residence, but then also to be tied in securely back into the House network was an early challenge that I think was overcome by most offices. But one unique challenge that we’ve noticed in a lot of the district offices is the inability to have Wi-Fi. Everything has to be directly connected ethernet wise — and not being able to have a Wi Fi so to speak, that can be picked up on with a laptop or other and so staff have been having to get a little creative with that. Do they use hotspots off their phones or official phones or their personal phones or jump off a Wi Fi somewhere else, then which creates other challenges. But I would say overall, everyone adjusted as well as they could as quickly as they could. And I think they’ve been able to meet the challenges that have faced everyone.

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about the sessions, where I guess it’s become a political issue, and I don’t really want to get into that aspect of it. But so many other organizations operate remotely through different types of collaboration applications. Should Congress have to meet in person? What’s the thinking on that? And is there some kind of a hybrid approach that would satisfy everybody? Representative Kilmer.

Derek Kilmer: Well, I think you’re starting to see that. You know, so our committee, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, even in the midst of this pandemic has had four virtual sessions, we’ve brought in expert speakers to do things like discuss best practices for virtual work and to talk about how district offices and the legislative branch can improve their continuity procedures to protect against the next crisis. We’ve discussed how Congress can continue to build its technology capacity, which is obviously to Tom Graves’ point, pretty germane right now. And then we we just this last week, had to do discussion related to staffing and how Congress as an institution can recruit, retain and have more diverse staff. And those conversations have been great dialogues. In the midst of social distancing, and some of the limitations by Congress, they have had to happen virtually. I think you’re seeing when Congress is back in session, either that hybrid approach or, you know, a committee like ours might meet in a larger room that we might otherwise meet in. But there’s certainly an openness to continuing discussion. I think the most important thing is the work of Congress needs to continue. And if it needs to continue using new technologies, that’s the way it’ll happen if it needs to. If it can happen in person in a safe way, it’ll happen in person safe way — but the work needs to happen, particularly on a committee like ours where we have an expiration date. We’ve got to get in a final set of recommendations before the year is out, and so our work can’t wait.

Tom Temin: And Representative Graves, would you say, perhaps Congress could meet in person to have that quorum. But maybe the I don’t know, the Washington Hilton ballroom, which can seat a couple of thousand crowded 435 could probably do pretty far apart.

Tom Graves: Yeah, probably so. I think we’ve demonstrated we can meet meet a quorum. And in I would probably characterize this as sort of unique, it’s almost like going through the various stages of grief from the beginning, there was a lot of denial, you know, resistance, that we’ve slowly moved to an understanding and acceptance of the way we can do things in a different way and still arrive at similar outcomes and be more efficient about it. But one of the early challenges probably was that the fact that the Senate was in session and has been quite a bit and the House is not, that created this unusual angst. And just to be honest, I think members just felt a desire to be there, to work, to represent, to try to fix a problem that is just a huge challenge for our country. So you have all these different pushing and pulling occurring that creates this tension that I think as the chairman’s references, started to squeeze out some new concepts and new ideas, the way that we can begin working together in an efficient capacity, but with not the ultimate goal to replace personal relationships or personal engagement and conversation, but to provide a bridge to that over time, so it’s been just really an interesting phase to watch. But I think in the end, it’ll produce a better, more efficient Congress, and our hope is a committee will better serve the American people.

Tom Temin: Now the federal agencies are starting to open again, their buildings that is, the executive branch agencies. And that seems to be something they’re kind of doing on their own and without a lot of coordination necessarily from one agency to the other. And each according to what it sees as its best scheduling practices. Do you sense that Congress is going to maybe step in a little bit more than what we’ve heard so far, and try to get some order imposed on this whole gigantic issue, which does vary a lot from state to state? Representative Kilmer.

Derek Kilmer: Well, certainly the discussion in Congress is about opening and opening safely. That applies both with regard to the actions of the executive branch, but also with regard to how Congress does its business. So, again, you’re seeing virtual committee action happen. I think, with a lot of consultation with public health professionals, looking at having Congress get back, and listen, reopen may just look different right. Right now, and certainly until there’s a vaccine, I think it’s unlikely you’re going to see 435 members of Congress and a whole bunch of staff packed in together on the House floor. The new normal may be the staggered voting that you’ve seen, people wearing masks people, hand sanitizing, and listen, there are other things that have come up in our discussions as a committee about what continuity looks like. For example, a lot of members, myself included, do a lot of town halls. Well, you know, you can’t really do that right now and get your constituents all packed into a place together. So you’ve seen a lot of members moving to telephone town halls. And one of the things that came up in one of our committees virtual discussions is should the house be bulk purchasing those tele-townhall subscriptions so that we can get a better deal and do a better job of communicating with our constituents even during a time of emergency. You’ve seen the executive branch implement some innovations during the pandemic where Congress could also take action. So for example, the requirement for wet signatures. Obviously when members of Congress are dispersed all over the country that that’s pretty tough. And so looking at accelerating the use of digital signatures is something that Congress so far has not really taken advantage of and I think is something that will require a look and may likely see a recommendation from our committee.

Tom Temin: Yes and Representative Graves, that’s an issue for some not just members of Congress, but also for some of the agencies, such as Social Security. They have a couple of lawsuits right now because of their policy requiring wet signatures. And some people that are disabled or blind added in with the COVID-19 threat feel like they need to get some kind of a digital capacity in place. So that’s something sounds like it’s high on the agenda.

Tom Graves: Yes, I think you’re right. I mean, every agency and probably every committee and both bodies in Congress are evaluating what are all the new technologies that are available to keep the process moving back to that continuity. And when you have continuity planning and implementation, it generally is only temporary but it could lead to long term reforms or changes that make things better and more efficient as you as you move forward. What I’ve found really positive through this experience, when you’re looking for the positives is that I feel like as a member, I’ve been more connected than I had been in the past. And it’s through the use of technology, whether it’s through the conference calling or the video conferencing, all the various groups and whether it’s in your district or nationally or with your own caucus, or with the administration or agency heads, you feel connected. I’ve felt like I’ve been a lot more connected to information and access to information because I could be in more places within a given day. In fact, last week, I believe I was in two different committee hearings at the same time, which is something we’ve grappled with in the past in person, but I was able to do it digitally. However, the one lack I’ve noticed is the ability to engage in bipartisan relationships or conversations through the use of same technology. So I think we, as two parties, and maybe even as two bodies, are using things to its fullest and are better access to better information, but we’re in our own silos. When we begin bridging those silos or connecting them, I think, then we will see some great advantages to the use of the technology.

Tom Temin: And I’ve got a practical question. I was trying to read the CARES Act, and tried to read the act that hasn’t passed the Senate, the HEROES Act. These are really long. I was hoping finally, maybe they’ll have clickable and linked PDFs, where in the table of contents, it’ll take you to that section. But no, you guys are still with the big old PDFs that really take some fortitude to read. How are we coming on just better processes for the paper of Congress?

Derek Kilmer: Well, actually, one of our early recommendations was looking at making information more available to the American people. We have a recommendation related to a system that would allow people to track legislation, to track amendments, to look at the impact of legislation on current law to see what’s being changed because, you know, not just for most Americans, heck for most members of Congress, when you look at legislation, it can read like hieroglyphics, it can be really confusing. And part of the role of our committee is to have Congress not just function better but for it to function better on behalf of the American people. So we have a recommendation in that regard. We’ve also have recommendations regarding sort of one click access to agencies and programs that have expired and need congressional attention. One click access to see how members of Congress have voted, not just on the House floor, but also in committee. Making it easier to know who’s lobbying Congress and what they’re lobbying for. And so all of this is with an eye towards just opening up and making more transparent the legislative process.

Tom Temin: And Representative Graves?

Tom Graves: The chairman outlined a lot of the great recommendations early that have already been through the House and are moving through the process of implementation. But you bring up a good point, and that is, technology is there we see it in the corporate world and even in the educational side with our educational institutions, the ability to connect and to find access to information very quickly. And this committee has worked towards that in a great way, and hopefully, I know, given there have been some delays, but hopefully implementation will come in the near term. But I will say all of our work has really been for the next Congress. And I know that there’s been a lot of focus on this committee and the work we’ve been doing and the expectation and hope that it like impacts right now. But our plan and the agenda that the chairman has set out has been very robust and bold, but it’s all about moving forward in the future. What are the changes that can make the House of Representatives work better for the American people? And so I think you’ll probably see most of those significant changes occur within the next Congress and beyond.

Tom Temin: Georgia Representative Tom Graves and Washington Representative Derek Kilmer, Vice Chair and Chairman of the Select Committee on the modernization of Congress.

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