The Congressional Institute is pleased to publish this special blog post from the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress Chair Rep. Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair William Timmons. The Institute works closely with the Committee on its reform initiatives to bring the U.S. House of Representatives into the modern era and create a framework for effective legislation and to encourage more Members to participate in the legislative process.
A Bipartisan House Committee Shows Congress the Way to Productive Relations, Legislative Work
When the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was created at the beginning of the 116th Congress, it was given one year to investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people.
We knew that the Committee’s success depended on our ability to act fast in an institution that is not exactly known for its speed. And while we knew that finding our rhythm as a committee would take some time, we also knew that there were some intentional steps we could take to help that process along.
What we did not know was how important these early steps would be in helping to establish a foundation for success.
Two extensions and three years later, the Committee is still firing on all cylinders. To date, we have passed over 140 recommendations to make Congress work better for the American people. And over sixty percent of the recommendations the Committee adopted in the 116th Congress have been implemented or have seen meaningful action.
As we consider the significant work ahead in 2022, it is important to take stock of what we have learned along the way.
One important takeaway from our work thus far is that while the work we do matters, so does the way we do it. The Committee has made a number of recommendations focused on building committee capacity, and we have made a conscious effort to practice what we preach.
Innovative Approaches Demonstrate Possibilities
In January 2019, when the Committee was handed a broad mandate and given one year to get through it, we knew that relationship building was key. The Committee’s six Democrats and six Republicans would need to get to know each other in order to work quickly across a wide range of issues.
The first order of business was a bipartisan member retreat. Members were able to connect on a personal and professional basis, areas of interest were determined, and goals were established. The retreat helped forge a common purpose and laid the groundwork for a collaborative approach to the Committee’s work.
We have recommended that other committees hold bipartisan planning retreats at the beginning of new sessions of Congress. There is no “one-size-fits-all” formula here, but finding areas of common interest can at least help committees determine where members might work collaboratively on policy issues. That is a productive step forward.
The Committee has also experimented with and adopted some of the unique hearing formats it has recommended. For example, our members sit alternating by party rather than on opposite sides of the room. The Committee also uses a roundtable format, so members and witnesses are on the same level and can look directly at one another. We have also chosen extended discussions over the rule limiting each member to five minutes of questions.
These approaches to the way we do our work have helped establish a culture of collaboration. We know that the formats we use will not work for every committee, but they do make it possible to hold strong individual views and still work to find common ground.
The Committee’s more informal processes have also helped it remain consistently productive. In addition to its many public hearings (16 in the 116th and 12 so far in the 117th), Committee members conference regularly, outside of public view, to talk through the issues and hammer out recommendations.
As we head into 2022, we will continue to work in ways that produce results. The Committee will also continue to focus on bolstering legislative branch capacity so that Congress can effectively carry out its Article I obligations.
The recommendations we passed in 2021 furthered our mission to ensure that Congress is equipped to act as a co-equal branch of government. In July, we adopted a set of 20 recommendations, mostly focused on providing Congress with the tools it needs to recruit and retain the diverse and talented staff it needs to work efficiently and effectively on behalf of the American people. The Committee also passed recommendations to ensure that all Americans have equal access to Congress.
The Committee’s most recent set of recommendations, adopted in early December, focus on a few different aspects of capacity building. In order for Congress to uphold its constitutional responsibilities, it needs its members to work together to produce results. Hyper-polarization makes this challenging, but not impossible. Through a series of hearings last summer and fall, the Committee explored the root causes of polarization and learned how organizational experts who work with some of America’s top companies address conflict and gridlock.
Strengthening the Legislative Branch
The end result of this work was the bipartisan approval of 25 recommendations that will create more opportunities for bipartisan cooperation on legislation, build civility and leadership training into the freshman orientation process, promote relationship building between members, and provide a platform for committee chairs and leaders to receive constructive feedback from members.
The Committee also passed recommendations to strengthen congressional support agencies. The Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Congressional Research Service provide Congress with invaluable analysis on the policy issues of the day. Congress needs to make sure these agencies have the capacity and tools they need to adapt and evolve.
Another recommendation that will put Congress on equal footing with the executive branch is one to establish a congressional commission on evidence-based policymaking. The commission is designed after a similar (and successful) executive branch effort and will focus on facilitating the use of impartial data and evidence in the legislative process.
We are proud of what the Committee accomplished in 2021 and look forward to building on our success in the new year. Issues that we will likely explore include constituent engagement and civic education, continuity of government, and streamlining various lawmaking processes. Committee members are also interested in looking at ways to modernize Congress’s physical space, update constituent services, and create a more efficient schedule. As the Committee approaches its final year of work, we remain hopeful that modernization efforts will continue well beyond 2022 with the continued support of outstanding organizations such as the Congressional Institute by our side. It will take the continued efforts of us all to ensure recommendations are implemented and regularly updated so Congress is able to address the ever-changing needs of our country.
Representative Derek Kilmer (WA-6) is Chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Representative William Timmons (SC-4) is Vice Chair of the Committee.