Congress’ own reform committee wraps up its work and now its time to vote

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For several years, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been developing ideas for just that: updating a whole branch of government. Recently it held its final hearing. Earlier in September it introduced a resolution to advance 32 recommendations the committee itself endorsed. For a summary and what comes next, the Federal Drive with Tom...

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

For several years, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been developing ideas for just that: updating a whole branch of government. Recently it held its final hearing. Earlier in September it introduced a resolution to advance 32 recommendations the committee itself endorsed. For a summary and what comes next, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with committee chairman Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and vice chair Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.).

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Gentlemen, good to have you both on.

Derek Kilmer: Thanks. Good to be back with you.

Tom Temin: And let’s begin if we can with just a review of the recommendations, the general buckets they fall into. We don’t have to name all 32. But give us generally what this committee hopes to accomplish in the different domains. Rep. Kilmer?

Derek Kilmer: We recently introduced a resolution that was bipartisan that advanced another 32 of the recommendations that our committee made. They focus on broadly, some recommendations related to bolstering staff, improving technology used by the Congress, trying to incentivize more cooperative policymaking. Some recommendations regarding streamlining of House operations. Just to give you a couple of examples on the staffing side, we’ve made recommendations that are included in this resolution to help staff get continuing education, getting additional training, creating a mentorship program, having a more standard approach to onboarding new staff within the institution. On the civility and cooperation front, we’ve included recommendations for guarding having a bipartisan congressional retreat and empowering committees to also do bipartisan retreats. There’s a recommendation dealing with experimenting with different hearing formats. If you’ve watched our committee on C-SPAN, you probably have too much time on your hands. But if you have watched our committee on C-SPAN, you’ll notice that we have experimented with a lot of different formats for our hearings. And that type of experimentation is good and constructive for the institution to improve. So our hope is to see that resolution move forward.

Tom Temin: And Rep. Timmons, you’re relatively new to this particular seat because of some districting issues and who won a primary. So here you are, your reaction to what’s going on so far?

William Timmons: I think it’s fantastic. We’ve done a lot of great work the last three and a half years. And the unique thing about this resolution is that it is both bipartisan, the chair and ranking member of House Admin. have sponsored it. And as have the vice chair and the chairman of the Modernization Committee. So we’re in a very good position to push this across the finish line. And we’ve implemented over two thirds of the recommendations in some capacity. And we’re hoping to run through the finish line.

Tom Temin: And the hearing last week, that was pretty interesting. just summarize that for us. What got you to in terms of point in history?

William Timmons: Sure. The question is what happens next? And obviously, we all agree that this shouldn’t happen every 30 years. And we both agree that it’s likely not to remain a select committee next Congress. So the question is what happens? And it seems that we’ve ended up as a subcommittee on House Admin. And then the question is, how often do we go back to a select committee? And that’s, you know, every three, four Congresses, I think we’re kind of mostly in agreement there, Mr. Chairman, what do you think?

Derek Kilmer: I think that’s the general consensus of the members of the committee that you don’t want the institution to just be consistently behind the eight ball. We know the nature of work changes. We know technology changes. We know human resources issues change. We know that the institution faces new and different challenges. And so having a means through which Congress can be more capable at addressing those sorts of issues, I think, is really important. And so my sense is the consensus, although until we all look each other in eyes and say, yes, we all agree to this, would be most likely to have a subcommittee on House Admin., and then recommend that every three, four congresses or so that there’d be another modernization effort, just to get out ahead of some of these challenges.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Democrat Derek Kilmer and Republican William Timmons, chair and vice chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. And you’ve got a few weeks left in this current legislative session. Hopefully you guys will both be back after the midterms. And what’s the plan for turning some of these final ideas into legislation that the chamber can go with?

Derek Kilmer: I mentioned the resolution, that’s important. One of the things I’m proudest of in terms of the work that we’ve done is not only has our committee made 171 recommendations, but we’ve focused on making sure that they’re not just recommendations that sit on a shelf, we’ve worked on ensuring that they get implemented. About 70% of our recommendations have seen some meaningful action toward implementation and a good chunk of them have been fully implemented. And so that’s going to be the continued work going forward through the end of this Congress. We’re actually hoping to take up next week. We have a markup scheduled for next Wednesday to take up some additional recommendations. We will likely have another markup after the election just to deal with some of the dogs and cats that we haven’t been able to get to so far. And then, you know, if you look at the history of these reform committees, a lot of the most substantial changes happen after the committee goes away, where there’s a continued focus on implementing some of those recommendations.

Tom Temin: And what would you say so far that have been implemented are the most significant? What would you put at the top of the list?

William Timmons: Our staffing recommendations have been incredible, we increased the maximum amount that our teams can make up to 203. Cost of living in D.C. is outrageous. And it’s really difficult to retain top talent. And one is the increase to the MRA, we increased 21%. And that allows members of Congress to appropriately compensate their teams and make sure that we keep everybody on the Hill that wants to stay. So I would go there. That plus civility. And we’ve made a ton of recommendations that are designed to increase relationship building opportunities, whether on the committee members, staff retreats, a more intentional use of space in the House, to give people opportunities to break bread or to spend time together in a neutral setting. So made a lot of progress there, as well.

Derek Kilmer: I agree with William. The issues relating to staffing really matter, making sure that we’re able to recruit, retain, have diverse staff, have training opportunities for the staff, that matters not just to the people who work in the institution, it matters to our constituents, because the ability of this institution to solve big problems is stymied when we have a brain drain out of the institution. And so that I think, is one of the more important legacies of the work that we’ve done. The only other thing that I would mention, in terms of recommendations that have been implemented, has been restoring the power to the legislative branch, when it comes to appropriations. You know, allowing for what’s now called community project funding, which has, you know, very strong guardrails, but enabling members to advocate for funding for projects in their district, for investments in their district, you know, members know their districts best. And rather than having all of those funding decisions determined by very well intentioned folks who may work for executive branch agencies, actually empowering members to advocate for funding for projects in their district, I think is important. And I think it serves a constitutional purpose. It’s in keeping with Article I of the Constitution. So I think that is another one that’s really important.

Tom Temin: And looking at these, just a technical question, maybe I’ve asked this before, but many of these the House can do in and of itself, you don’t need to have a bill that the Senate has to also pass and the president sign for these reforms?

Derek Kilmer: Correct. There’s some that will require passing the House, passing in the Senate. You know, we’ve made a number of recommendations regarding changes to the budget process. That would actually require legislation that passed the House, passed in the Senate and get signed by the president. There are others that we’re hoping to address through this resolution that we introduced when the House is on the hook for it. When the House passes that resolution, then we go into implementation mode. There are some recommendations that will be part of a rules package in January, when a new Congress convenes. Some things have been done through the leg. branch appropriations process. And in fact, to the credit of the Democratic and Republican leaders on leg. branch appropriations, they’ve included funding for a modernization account to actually use those funds to implement some of the recommendations our committee has made.

Tom Temin: And maybe review some of the information technology advancements, because I think that’s where people look at Congress and see something pretty dated.

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, Congress has been described as an 18th century institution using 20th century technology to solve 21st century problems. I think that’s pretty accurate. One of the more significant recommendations that we made that has been implemented is to establish a House Digital Service that’s focused on onboarding new technologies, even developing new technologies. Our hope is in the mark up we’ll do next week to make some further recommendations focused on ensuring that we’re more targeted and strategic regarding how the institution onboards technology, and even how in-house technology has developed.

Tom Temin: And how has support been from say, the top leadership. I mean, if you look at the speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), you know, she has her head and a lot of really big issues that are cable TV staples, and so forth. Has she dipped by and said, yeah, this is good stuff?

William Timmons: Speaker Pelosi has been very supportive. We were originally given only a year and then we were extended another year. And then we got a full two years this Congress. So the fact that she’s prioritizing our work is fantastic. And Leader McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been equally supportive. So I think leadership appreciates the work that we’re doing the hard work, and we couldn’t be here without him. And implementation is very leadership dependent. So it’s been a good working relationship.

Tom Temin: So the committee goes out of business then at the end of the session, but the basic expectation is that these reforms will have life in votes before the chamber just to summarize it.

Derek Kilmer: Correct.

William Timmons: Absolutely.

Tom Temin: All right. And just a final question on the civility front, in many ways, is the most fundamental issue to getting the right answers to what citizens perceive as their problems. Any examples of breaking bread and maybe bridging a gap? Because You sure don’t see evidence of it in the mass media of, you know, a Republican and the Democrat actually talking very much.

William Timmons: Our committee is the best example. Six Republicans, six Democrats. We’ve all become friends, we’ve developed great working relationships. And we’ve proved to Congress and to the American people that we can still get important work done. And we can still work in a collaborative way. And so it’s been some of the best work I’ve ever done in my professional career. And I’m looking forward to continuing the hard work of implementing all the recommendations in the coming months and years.

Derek Kilmer: And if you look at how our committee has functioned, a lot of what we’ve recommended have been things that we’ve also done ourselves, right. So we actually did do a bipartisan committee planning retreat. I had never been part of an exercise until I got to Congress where you didn’t start the process by saying, hey, so what do we want to get done? You know, our committee has done that in a bipartisan way. We’ve made recommendations around experimenting with different formats for hearings, because we’ve done it and we’ve seen it work. We’ve seen how, when you sit around a round table rather than up on a dais, when you have Republicans sitting next to Democrats, that’s not just cosmetic, it actually engenders the capacity to solve problems together. I’ll give you one other quick example. And it deals with how orientation is done for new members. You know, William tells the story about showing up for orientation and being told, you know, Republicans you get on that bus, Democrats you get on this bus, you know, and much of the orientation processes seems to be an exercise in trying to keep the two parties from talking to each other. One of our recommendations is stop doing that. Right, let’s actually onboard members in a way that at least gives it a shot to have some collaboration within the institution.

Tom Temin: Well, it’s been great talking with you over the years and I wish you luck in the future endeavors even without a select committee, Democrat Derek Kilmer and Republican William Timmons, are chair and vice chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Thanks so much for joining me.

Derek Kilmer: Thank you.

William Timmons: Great to be with you.

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