For Congress to have any chance of instituting meaningful reforms that will create effective legislative environments in both chambers, there must be a joint reform committee modeled on the example being set by the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
For the last four years, the Modernization Committee has created a roadmap for bipartisan cooperation to solve issues inside House and Committee offices. They have diligently tackled issues related to office management, HR functions, and staff retention and capacity – among a lot of other matters – that have led to nearly 150 unanimously passed recommendations with 30 fully implemented and another 61 partially implemented.
In an era of increasingly polarized committees where Members struggle to remain cordial, the leadership of Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Vice Chairman William Timmons (R-SC) has been a breath of fresh – and effective – air.
From the beginning, the Committee has brought in a wide range of experts not just to testify but to engage in substantive discussions both in hearings with committee members and in more casual conversations with staff. These interactions have been so important to give the Committee very different perspectives on which to base their thinking on developing recommendations.
A specific area of focus for the committee has been looking at how to improve the working conditions in the House. No one gets hired on Capitol Hill because they’re a great manager; staff typically come up through campaigns or arrive fresh from law school. On-the-job training is focused on job responsibilities such as messaging and social media tactics for communications staffers, analyzing legislative proposals for policy staffers, or learning how to give tours for interns and junior staff. There’s been a significant lack of management training, cultivating a professional and supportive culture in individual offices, and conflict resolution.
The two most valuable assets a Member of Congress has are their time and their staff. A good Member knows that treating their staff well will lead to a more stable office with less turnover and better performance in which people serve with distinction. Most importantly, that benefits the constituents. When staff isn’t treated well – and the Capitol Hill rumor mill overflows with stories about bad bosses – they leave, taking their institutional knowledge with them.
In addition to making recommendations about professional development, uncoupling staff salaries from Member pay, and improving staff capacity, the Committee is looking at a program in which staffers could receive some kind of tuition reimbursement for continuing education. It sounds like a small thing, but nearly every major private-sector company, as well as the rest of the Federal government, offers similar programs for employees looking to further their education. Why wouldn’t Congress want to offer the same benefit to their employees?
But there’s only so much the Select Committee can do. Their work improving functions in the U.S. House is exemplary. Legislators need to legislate. One of the most important reforms Congress can pursue is increasing opportunities for Members to amend legislation on the Floor of the House. Right now, most town councils have a more open amendment process than the United States House of Representatives. It is a national embarrassment.
Next Congress the Senate needs to join in on the work.
It was very encouraging to hear Chairman Kilmer mention during a recent virtual event with CQ-Roll Call that he has met with about half-a-dozen Senators to discuss the Committee’s work. I participated in the second panel during that event and advocated for what we know has worked in the past: a joint reform committee in which the House and Senate tackle significant issues that contribute to a breakdown of legislative activity. Without the participation of both chambers, things like budget reform and even meaningful filibuster reform that is based on what’s right for moving legislation and not in scoring political points have little chance of succeeding.
The Senate has traditionally been more collegial than the House, but that has faded somewhat over the years. We’re seeing more and more polarization and less and less relationship-forming among Senators as gotcha-politics seeps into their work. A joint reform committee can explore this growing partisanship and take steps to reduce its influence by improving chamber effectiveness.
Regardless of what party is in charge next year, the long-term health and legislative capacity of Congress must be a priority. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has created a solid foundation and an excellent roadmap for how a Joint Committee can succeed.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.