Committee to reform House is off to a running start in the 117th Congress

Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin for an update.

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The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is something of an odd duck. It has 50/50 party membership. Members of the two parties sit among one another. They don’t seem to bicker. Now the committee has held detailed hearings on its agenda in the 117th Congress. For an update, committee chairman and Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview trancript:

Tom Temin: Rep. Kilmer, good to have you back.

Derek Kilmer: Great to be back with you.

Tom Temin: And you had a extensive hearing with lots of people from outside that have an interest in Congress in general, working better. And I just wanted to ask you about some of the findings of – diversity and inclusion seems to be a high-profile conversation almost everywhere in public life nowadays. And this came up for Congress as an employer, didn’t it?

Derek Kilmer: It did. You know, we had a great hearing where we brought in a whole bunch of the civil society groups, groups that are interested in reform organizations that care about Congress working better. And we had an entire panel of folks who were concerned about ensuring that Congress is a place that can recruit and retain staff and have a staff that looks like the American people. And we heard some really interesting testimony around the importance of the new Office of Diversity and Inclusion, about the value of looking at internships as an avenue into working for Congress, and the importance of ensuring that those internship opportunities are available for everybody, regardless of their background, their race or ethnicity, their personal family financial picture. And I think those are threads that the committee has pulled on previously, and are likely going to be issues that we engage on in this Congress as well.

Tom Temin: And of course, technology’s always a big one, and that has two sides, really: one, congressional expertise in modern contemporary science and technology matters. And that’s a huge broad range – spectrum, artificial intelligence, you name it – and then of course, there’s the perennial of technology of the House itself. And of course, in the past year of pandemic, there’s been some real technological progress forced by the pandemic itself. So comment on what you might see ahead and what you might be discussing on both those fronts, technology of the Congress and congressional expertise in technology.

Derek Kilmer: As an institution, we need to do better on both fronts. Congress has been aptly described as an 18th-Century institution using 20th-Century technology to solve 21st-Century problems. And I think there are some real opportunities to engage on this to look at, for example, how Congress purchases and uses technology to, you know, really look at some of the shortcomings in Congress’ current approach to the use of technology to look at best practices in technology adoption, in purchasing across offices and training, you know, really with a goal of identifying recommendations that could ensure that Congress is fully conversant with the latest developments in technology and able to anticipate the impacts of future developments and really, with the hope of also proactively shaping policies to manage them. On top of that, you rightfully pointed out some of the issues facing just individual members, I think one of the Paramount issues that will likely be a front burner issue for the committee is issues related to cybersecurity. With more and more offices working remotely, ensuring that Congress has the capacity to do that, which obviously, the learning curve ramped up very substantially over this last year because of the pandemic. But ensuring that that work can happen in a secure manner, I think is very important. And so we’re likely to look at that issue, too. The other thing, though, that I’ll mention, it’s an area that you didn’t raise, and that is how technology can be used for evidence-based policymaking. And for building public trust. We heard at the hearing we had recently, you know, some examples of that. And where technology could be used to engage the public to dig into analytics so that Congress gets better at evidence-based policymaking and building public trust. And I think technology has a clear role to play there as well.

Tom Temin: I mean, that would take some fortitude, I think on the part of Congress, and I’ll just bring up one example. There has been a spate of shootings in the United States. And so the gun regulation, gun debate comes up. And it’s, you know, pretty hot right now. One of the measures discussed is safe storage, which is worthy cause but safe storage has nothing to do with these highly public shootings that we’ve seen occur throughout the country. And so evidence on what is really going on in that case might make some people have to change their positions, even within the context of the greater public good they might believe in with respect to greater gun regulation. I just bring that up as an example.

Derek Kilmer: I think there’s an opportunity and there’s a lot of things that drive policymaking currently. Making sure that as Congress engages on these issues, it’s done in a way that reflects facts and reflects data is important. We also heard in our hearing about the concept of crowd law, the practice of using technology to tap into the collective intelligence and expertise of the public with the eye towards improving the quality and legitimacy of lawmaking. You know, that’s a topic I think we could very likely dig into as well, where we could explore how already you’ve seen some parliaments and legislatures and city councils around the world, use new technology to really strengthen public participation in the lawmaking process and try to tap into some of that expertise that exists.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Washington State Democrat Derek Kilmer, who chairs the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. And in a related issue, is communications with constituents and modernizing that because I think that came up in a couple of your witnesses that the volume and diversity of communications that come at a member of Congress – I don’t know how you guys handle it. Because every person now represents more than 700,000 people. That would seem to be a really urgent one, to be able to get that sense, as you mentioned, of what are people really thinking in my district, and then add it all up in the country?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, that came up in our hearing, and I think, again, is a great opportunity for the committee to engage on that subject of how do you use new tools for constituent outreach? Public disengagement can limit the range of political perspective that Congress hears and leaves this space, oftentimes to hyper partisans who already drive the debate, what we’ve seen is some new tools that have been developed to create more integrated more database more constituent-focused conversations around policy issues. So for example, we heard about in our hearing POPVOX, which recently piloted a platform for the House Committee on Natural Resources, which allowed the committee to solicit input on environmental justice legislation, and the committee posted the bill on its website. And the platform actually allowed citizens to read and comment on the bill, which provided the committee with valuable citizen input that is often missing in the context of Congress. So I think we are going to be looking at some of these new avenues through which we could engage our constituents.

Tom Temin: And finally, there was a discussion on legislative process itself and greater participation in legislation by more members. And that’s kind of an interesting idea, because I guess there’s some members that have their names attached to landmark legislation, and are always on to bills. And then you have some members that come and go after 10,12, 20, 30 years sometimes, with not a whole lot to show on the legislative front, except having voted. So what was the thinking there?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there. I think, you know, as our committee has started having discussions about the work on the 117th, part of the focus is on just trying to determine steps that could be taken to improve efficacy of individual members. And then the hoping that in the aggregate, as an institution, you see Congress work better for the American people, which is really the mission of our committee. There are different things that impede that type of progress. One of the things that you heard discussed at our recent hearing, were issues related to efforts to enhance stability and more bipartisan collaboration. That fed into a lot of the committee’s work in the 116th Congress, I think we’ll continue to explore ways to encourage the institution and individual members to work more collaboratively, and to treat each other with respect. There was also acknowledgement that part of the challenges in Congress are not necessarily about rules and procedures, but are just about norms and culture, and trying to look at means through which the institution can simply be more functional, I think is quite important. I shared with the collective group, we’ve started talking not just to political scientists, but to, organizational psychologists and folks who work on corporate culture. And, you know, at this point, I’m happy to talk to everyone from folks who have expertise in marriage counseling or exorcism to figure out how to get members of Congress to work together so that we can actually solve problems for the American people.

Tom Temin: Well, here’s my advice, and it’s free – maybe have members never look at Facebook and Twitter again, instead, talk to one another and talk to people?

Derek Kilmer: That may be good, just general advice. I did a session for my constituents, actually, at the beginning of the pandemic, where one of the leaders in our mental health community just talked about tips and tricks for getting through the pandemic. And one of their words of wisdom was limit your exposure to social media. So maybe, Tom, that’s just good advice in general.

Tom Temin: And do you find that this particular assignment among everything else going on in Congress continues to generate your own enthusiasm for the next couple of years?

Derek Kilmer: Well, I’m really excited about, one, the progress that we’ve made so far. I mean, not to be lost in the last Congress, the select committee worked together to pass 97 recommendations, with unanimous support to make Congress more efficient, more effective, more accessible, more transparent, you know, and all with the goal of making the institution work better for the American people. And we made a lot of progress, many of our recommendations have either already been implemented, or are in the process of being implemented some part of the focus in this Congress will be making sure that those other recommendations – we didn’t make recommendations so that they can go get put on a shelf. We made recommendations because we want the institution to work better. And I think, I’m excited. We’ve got seven of our 12 members of the committee are new to the committee. And, you know, I think that they bring new energy, new ideas. And, we have a real opportunity here to engage on not just some of the issues you asked me about today, but some other issues that could really make a difference in enhancing the institution and hopefully having a Congress that works better for the American people.

Tom Temin: Washington State Democrat Derek Kilmer chairs the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Thanks so much for joining me.

Derek Kilmer: You bet. Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Hear the Federal Drive on demand, subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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