“When I was first asked to serve as the Republican leader of this Select Committee, I almost declined—actually, I think I did decline originally,” recalled Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, the Vice Chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as they met to vote on their final 40 recommendations—adopted unanimously.
Graves said he had been concerned that people wouldn’t take the panel’s work seriously or that his party, being in the minority, would be ignored.
“It turns out this committee, for me, has been the bright spot. It’s been a refuge over the last two years,” Graves said.
On Thursday, September 24, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress voted on its final report and its last set of recommendations to improve how the House of Representatives works. The recommendations they approved brought the committee’s total for the last 18 months to 97, all agreed to unanimously.
The Select Committee was created with the adoption of H.Res. 6 at the beginning of the 116th Congress to study and recommend ways the House can more effectively carry out its constitutional responsibilities. The Committee is bipartisan, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, an unusual feature for congressional committees. H.Res. 6 also required that the freshman class, the Rules Committee, and the House Administration Committee each be represented by a Member from each party. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) has been its Chairman. H.Res. 6 set a 2/3 supermajority for the adoption of recommendations.
The final set of recommendations fell under 5 general categories:
- Reforming the House’s calendar and schedule
- Improving resources available to staff
- Strengthening the Legislative Branch by strengthening committees and Member relationships
- Reforming the budget and spending process
- Improving technology, data and continuity of government practices
The Select Committee’s recommendations on the budget and appropriations process will rank among the most important. In recent years, rather than passing 12 appropriations bills by the end of September, Congress has passed massive omnibus spending bills weeks and months after the start of the fiscal year, even, on occasion, after funding has lapsed and the government has shutdown. To improve Congress’ “Article I” powers and the budget process, the Select Committee recommended that Congress adopt a budget resolution covering two years, rather than just one, and increasing congressional control over how Federal dollars are spent. Additionally, it recommends Congress follow “a more realistic budget timeline.” Biennial budgeting, restoring the authorization process, and shifting the fiscal year are recommendations the Congressional Institute has made for several years, and we hope that the rest of Congress takes note of the Select Committee’s proposals on the budget and appropriations front.
The Select Committee’s unanimous approval of nearly 100 recommendations over the course of its work speaks to its bipartisan nature. Though it was composed of an equal number of Members from each party, the Democrats and Republicans could have organized the panel along partisan lines. Instead, Chairman Kilmer and Vice Chairman Graves agreed to work in a bipartisan fashion.
Chairman Kilmer said they knew “that if this committee was going to work, we’d need a different approach. Our first decision was to check party labels at the door. We agreed that problem solving isn’t partisan and we’d work together as colleagues, rather than as Republicans and Democrats.”
To work as colleagues rather than political opponents, they formed a bipartisan staff and pursued a bipartisan communications strategy. Additionally, while parties typically sit at opposite sides of the dais at committee meetings, they experimented with staggered seating during some sessions.
“We sought compromise at every step of the way,” Kilmer said.
Graves spoke about the importance of bipartisanship to their work. “I’ve also learned how important bipartisan relationships are to legislating and getting things done for those we serve. It’s not something we’re taught in orientation.”
“Our relationships on this committee really are at the heart of our work that we’ve put together,” Graves said.
The Select Committee’s commitment to bipartisanship has paid off: It has earned the distinction of being the first reform committee to see any of its recommendations adopted by the House while its work was ongoing. They achieved this despite events that could have impeded or even doomed the Select Committee’s work: the government shutdown at the beginning of the 116th Congress, the impeachment of President Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic. “Through all of this, our committee, our work to make Congress better, has just been steady,” Graves said.
The Select Committee has no legislative jurisdiction, so it may not report actual legislation, only recommendations. In 2019, Members of the committee introduced recommendations on various topics, including technology, human resources, and accessibility as H.Res. 756, which was then referred to the Committee on House Administration for review. On March 10, 2020, the House agreed to the resolution by an overwhelming 395-13 vote.
Though the House has already adopted one set of recommendations and though the Select Committee issued its final report, its Members still see much work to do. The final report identifies areas where the Select Committee was not able to issue recommendations but which it says are still issues of concern. House leaders have not indicated that the Select Committee would be continued in the next Congress, and committee Members expressed the hope that its work would continue in some form or another.
“Clearly more work needs to be done to make Congress work better for the American people, but progress will be made,” Kilmer said.
Three of the five Republicans on the Select Committee are departing Congress, including Vice Chairman Graves, who will resign in October. One of the departing Members, Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, said she “ran in part on trying to restore confidence in Congress” and that the Select Committee’s productive tenure was a “perfect bookend” to her time in the legislature. She pledged to promote the Select Committee’s work even after she leaves the House.
“I think we showed the American people that ‘compromise’ is not a dirty word,” Brooks said.
For the full recommendations the Select Committee approved on Thursday, click here.
(Featured image courtesy of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress)
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is the Institute’s research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.