Some members of Congress are working to make things more civil, in a Congress that works better

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The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has lately been pursuing, among other things, a very un-modern idea. Namely, how to enhance civility and collaboration. On Thursday it conducted a hearing on this and other matters. For an update on the committee’s work, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke the committee chairman, Rep. Derek Kilmer...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has lately been pursuing, among other things, a very un-modern idea. Namely, how to enhance civility and collaboration. On Thursday it conducted a hearing on this and other matters. For an update on the committee’s work, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke the committee chairman, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), and the vice chairman, William Timmons (R-S.C.).

Tom Temin: For an update on the committee’s work, we turn to Washington Democrat, Derek Kilmer, the chairman Representative Kilmer. Good to have you on.

Derek Kilmer: Great to be back with you, Tom,

Tom Temin: And the vice chairman, South Carolina Republican, William Timmons. Representative Timmons, good to have you on.

William Timmons: Great to be with you. Thanks for having us.

Tom Temin: All right. So the committee has been at this now for several years, a lot of recommendations have come out, lots of hearings, give us an update on where the whole thing stands.

Derek Kilmer: It’s moving, I have to tell you, this committee was set up now three years ago with a goal of making Congress work better for the American people. And I think every committee members now had that tattooed on their arm. In that vein, the committee is now passed a total of 142 recommendations that are really geared around making Congress a more efficient and more effective institution. Those recommendations deal with everything from staffing to the use of technology to as you mentioned in your intro, issues around civility and collaboration. So here’s what’s cool: Part of our approach on this committee, it’s a little bit like the old Saturday Night Live, fake commercial for the bank that only makes change. You know, our motto is we make change, that’s what we do. Our goal isn’t just to make recommendations, it’s to make change within the institution. If you look at the 97 recommendations that were passed in the 116th, Congress, over 60% of them have either been implemented or have seen some meaningful action, 24 have been fully implemented and another 15 more are nearing full implementation. And so that is just tremendous progress. And frankly, we’re just getting started, we still have a full year ahead of us, a bunch of new projects are getting off the ground. We had a hearing this week with the CAO and with the Clerk of the House to talk about some of the progress still to be made. So I’m really enthusiastic. We’re really the first reform committee that made a decision that we weren’t just going to make recommendations, but we were going to work on implementation in real time, and I’m excited about the progress we’re making.

Tom Temin: And Representative Timmons, what’s your point of view you’re a little bit newer to Congress than Representative Kilmer. Neither one of you go back to Sam Rayburn. So what does it look like from your standpoint?

William Timmons: It’s important to remember, my campaign slogan when I ran for congress four years ago was that Washington is broken. And three years in to be part of the effort to try to reform Congress to make it more efficient, effective and transparent for the American people is just an incredible opportunity. I love it. And it’s been an honor to work with the chairman. We got a lot of work left to do. And I’m excited about what next year holds.

Tom Temin: And tell us more about that civility idea when you have one half calling the other side Bull Connor, and that half calling the other side, Ho Chi Minh, essentially, back and forth and variants on that theme, but you know what I’m talking about. How do you bridge that gap when nobody drinks bourbon together anymore?

William Timmons: Well, I drink wine. And I drink wine with anyone that wants to. So we’re working on that. But in all seriousness, the whole purpose of Congress is to engage in evidence based policy making in a collaborative manner, from a position of mutual respect. And we don’t do that. And we got to get back to that. That’s what the American people deserve. That’s what this country needs. And there’s a lot of noise in Washington, there’s a lot of noise in the media. Technology’s made it worse social media has made it worse. But I think that we can find a way to find common ground. It’s gonna be a lot of hard work, but it is definitely worth doing.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the ways that we can get there Representative Kilmer?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, let me say two things on that front, I think the American people are righteously exhausted by just the degree to which there’s too much partisan bickering and not enough progress in our nation’s capital. We, as a committee pulled on this thread, we reached out to a really broad group of folks with expertise on this, it is just a fact that organizations with a broken culture are less effective. So we brought in experts in organizational psychology in conflict resolution in strategic negotiations, we talked to management consultants, we talked to sports coaches, I thought about reaching out to an exorcist just to see how we can make the institution function more collaboratively. And so coming out of that the committee right before the new year passed 14 recommendations to address partisanship and to foster more collaboration. They looked at things like how to enable committees to have more opportunities for things like bipartisan planning and enabling Democrats and Republicans literally to just sort of sit down and work through issues together sometimes in a less formal setting. We’ve heard throughout the work of our committee, some of the concerns relating to new member orientation. I talked to a retired sports coach who had taken over a team that was very broken. And I said, “How do you fix a broken culture?” And he said, “The best thing you can do is promote better culture with the new members of your team.”

Well, in Congress, oftentimes new members would get brought in. And literally, it was divided from the beginning where you’d have Democrats get on one bus and Republicans get on another bus. And so part of our committee’s recommendation was to promote collaboration as part of new member orientation. We looked at even things like how to utilize technology better to facilitate member collaboration, so that if you’re a member who wants to work on immigration policy, or wants to work on health care policy, that you would be able to better connect with a colleague, perhaps a colleague across the aisle who has a similar priority.

The other thing I’ll just mentioned to you, Tom, is the approach of our committee was not just with the recommendations we’ve made, but also with the approach that we’ve taken as a committee. If you watch, or if any of those listening, watch one of our hearings on C-SPAN, you’ll find we do things differently. We don’t sit with Democrats on one side of the dais and Republicans on the other. Because, you know, just by the nature of when you hear something interesting in committee, you lean over to the person sitting next to you and say, Hey, what do you think about that? In our committee, when you lean over, you lean over next to someone from a different party and that I think has value. We don’t even sit on a dais, we sit around a round table, I have never had a constructive conversation speaking to the back of someone’s head. And so we’ve said, let’s not do that, you know, we’ve stopped the sort of five minutes speechifying for social media, and we’ve had a much more open approach to our committee hearings, where if members have a question or want to pull on a thread, they just raise their hand and say, hey, can I can I follow up on that. And we have found that that has led to less of what you see in a whole lot of committees, where it’s members trying to pull a five minute clip for social media and more actually trying to learn something from our witnesses. So those are some of the things our team is doing a bit differently.

Tom Temin: Representative Timmons?

William Timmons: One last thing, you know, we are viewing this as a multi decade approach. So we make a small change this Congress, we would recommend a small change here. And over the next few years, it really pays dividends. So we’re not going to be able to fix this place tomorrow. But when you build relationships, and in 10 years, 20 years, when the speaker and the minority leader are friends, they have a relationship, that is how this place is going to change. And that’s one of the things that we’re working on.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Republican William Timmons and Democrat Derek Kilmer, vice chairman and chairman respectively, of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. And I want to move on to the recommendations regarding evidence based policy making. And this is the law of the land for federal agencies. And there’s a growing expertise in use of data science and so forth because of a couple of different laws that Congress passed having to do with that. But how does that apply in Congress? And what are you doing there? And if you don’t mind, I’d like to maybe use one bill as an example. And that is, the voting legislation that has passed in one house, did not pass in the other chamber. And because in my view, neither side characterizes the other side’s version of voting laws accurately. And they may mischaracterize them in a deliberate way. Which means nobody’s getting at the issue of what is the reality of voting in the United States. And I’m not going to take aside one way or another, but maybe use that as an example for what you mean in the area of evidence based policy making? Representative Timmons?

William Timmons: Generally speaking, both sides have a set of talking points. And those talking points are designed to sway someone’s mind that has not made up their mind yet. We’re not having legitimate dialogue on the underlying issue. We don’t even agree what the problem is. And we’re not engaging in legitimate policy making. That’s not an indictment of the Democrats. That’s not an indictment of Republicans. It’s how the place operates on everything, not just on voting rights. Immigration, I think is probably the worst example. Or the best example depending on how I look at it, it’s something that we should easily find a path forward for this country. And we have failed for decades to make any changes. And so we’ve got to begin these conversations and not use talking points and talk past each other.

Tom Temin: Representative Kilmer?

Derek Kilmer: You mentioned this is something that the executive branch already did, you saw a commission on evidence based policy making that recommended that within the executive branch, that you better use data throughout the work of those agencies. What we’ve recommended is basically doing that for Congress by creating a congressional commission on evidence based policy making, hopefully to unearth ways to encourage and better facilitate the use of actual evidence and data in the legislative process within Congress. To William’s point that doesn’t happen enough in Congress. And I think there’s a real opportunity; we saw when there was a commission within the executive branch, it yielded a tremendous amount of change for the better. And I think to the extent that a commission like this could make recommendations on how to incorporate outcomes measurement, more rigorous impact analysis into the lawmaking process, I think, you know, incorporating real time data into the lawmaking process, I think that will be better for the American people and hopefully means that legislation will be driven by fact, and by evidence, not just by political talking points.

Tom Temin: And of course, Congress has its own institutions and structures for getting its evidence in information—GAO, the Congressional Budget Office—and a lot of the recommendations from recent votes have concerned strengthening those organizations that support Congress, the Congressional agencies, and that’s kind of gotten lost a little bit in the noise. So maybe review how you would bolster those organizations.

William Timmons: Tom, let me jump into the big picture, the way this place is supposed to work is on any issue, there’s going to be people on both ends of the spectrum, and you’re supposed to say all right, what’s the issue? Where are you on the spectrum, and then inevitably, you have to remove the 10% on the fringe, because you’re not going to be able on both fringe, and then you take the 80% of the middle, and then you work your way to 60%. That’s how this place is supposed to work. We don’t do that because no matter what the issue is, the fringe is always driving the conversation on both sides. And so we’re not engaging in policy making. We’re not. We’re engaging in these talking points, the depth of understanding on the issues is inevitably so low, we rarely get long enough to review legislation before it is voted on. And that is the same no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. So we got to get back to really getting deep into the weeds on some of these issues, because you’re never going to resolve the biggest challenges facing this country using talking points. And rarely will a party line vote solve the biggest challenges facing this country. That’s one of the big things that we work on, how do we get people to work together.

Derek Kilmer: And to your specific question about the support agencies use a lot of the work of Congress. And a lot of the way in which Congress seeks to make better laws and implement better laws is really dependent on the work of the support agencies: the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office. And so part of the recommendations that our committee just made right before the holidays was to bolster those support agencies in a number of ways trying to help them get better access to federal data, and to experts. So that, you know, oftentimes, these agencies that are so important to the ability of Congress to do lawmaking, and do appropriate oversight, run into challenges accessing data from the agencies themselves. So one of our recommendations was in that vein. We also made recommendations relating to just trying to ensure that these agencies have products and services that are really designed to adapt and to meet the needs of an evolving Congress. And to make sure, frankly, that members and staff are better aware of those products and services, again, with the goal of having a Congress that makes better laws and is more responsive to the American people. That’s really the nature of the work that we did in this space. And it’s out of respect for the importance of those agencies and a view that maybe there’s an opportunity to modernize the work of those agencies.

Tom Temin: All right, so the committee, your select committee, then has another year to go or I guess, 11 months almost at this point, and 142 recommendations, I want to review one more time 24 have been implemented by Congress by the full House. Correct? 19 are near. What’s your prospect for what the work will be in the coming 11 and a half months?

Derek Kilmer: We’re going to be working to get every recommendation we made implemented because again, our goal is not just to make recommendations, it’s to change the institution. At the same time, while we’re working with our implementing partners to get these recommendations implemented. We also recognize there are some additional issues that our committee ought to take up. If you look at our final report from the 116th Congress, the concluding chapter is basically here’s a bunch of stuff he haven’t gotten to yet. And among them are things like the continuity of Congress. So you know, God forbid, something happened. There’s a lot of issues that have been sort of left vague or undecided where we think our committee could weigh in. There’s, I think, further opportunity to make improvements related to the use of technology, looking at how Congress uses technology, how Congress purchases technology. We have a lot of interest within our committee on issues related to physical space within Congress. You know, the institution and its space is not really designed for collaboration. And these are really old buildings, but looking at how you might be able to use space better to make the organization more efficient is something that a number of members of our committee are really interested in. I know Congressman Timmons has been really leading the charge on issues related to deconfliction of the schedule. And maybe he wants to touch on that issue?

William Timmons: Sure, Tom, the amount of time we spend in Washington is insufficient. And the time that we are here is chaotic. There’s no better example than today. We were supposed to have our committee hearing at, well, right now, but we have votes right now. And everything is always in flux. So anything we can do to give members more time in Washington to do their job, the better off it’ll be. So we pass recommendations in the 116th Congress, saying that we need to travel less and be in Washington more. And the leader, his schedule, is trying to address that to have more four or five day work weeks, less three day work weeks. But once we are here more, we got to be more efficient with the time when we’re here. I call it pinballing. Pinballing, around the Capitol and the House office buildings is very inefficient. So you need to be in your committee to ask for five minutes, but you didn’t hear any of the testimony because you were in other subcommittees or full committees. And so the schedule does not facilitate the outcome we’re looking for. So anything we can do to allow members to be in their chairs in committee, and to do their work is a good use of our time on the select committee.

Derek Kilmer: Can I touch on that a little bit more, Tom?

Tom Temin: Sure.

Derek Kilmer: So the Bipartisan Policy Center did some really interesting research on this and found I can’t remember the exact number, but I want to say it was like 40% of members of Congress on a given day, had multiple committees meeting at the same time. And so, for your listeners if you’re watching a committee hearing on C-SPAN, and it looks like there’s a bunch of members who aren’t there, it’s usually because a bunch of members aren’t there. But they’re often another committee, if you change to C-SPAN2, 3 or C-SPAN8, which I’m not sure exists, but ought to, they’re in that committee. This is something that every high school and college in the country has figured out how to deconflict schedule, and yet Congress has continued to struggle with that. And I don’t say that, you know, as criticism of anybody, you’ve got members on a lot of committees, the average members on 5.4 committees and subcommittees, if you look at pre-pandemic, members were in session for 66 travel days and 65 full days. So those 5.4 committees and subcommittees are generally trying to jam every meeting into those 65 full days. Well, what’s the consequence of that? It means that you have a bunch of meetings happening at the same time. So either members need to be on fewer committees, or we need more days and more full days, not travel days, as the vice chairman just mentioned, or, and we need to use technology to deconflict the schedule more and that exists. And part of that hearing that we had in the discussion with the Clerk of the House was looking at trying to implement something like that. I don’t think that can happen fast enough.

Tom Temin: No chance of going back to the old dream ideal of citizen legislatures that meet for 30 days and then go home. I guess the Republic is way past that, isn’t it?

Derek Kilmer: I think that’s a recommendation we are unlikely to make, Tom.

Tom Temin: All right, Democrat Derek Kilmer and Republican William Timmons, our chairman and vice chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Thanks so much for joining me.

Derek Kilmer: You bet. Thanks for having us.

William Timmons: Great to be with you.

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