The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A bipartisan committee has ideas to make Congress more bipartisan — and lawmakers are listening

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) commented Sept. 26 on the polarization in politics, saying there are steps Congress can take to promote civility. (Video: C-Span)
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On Sept. 26, the House Intelligence Committee opened its first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

That same day, a dozen lawmakers gaveled in a hearing on a much quainter topic: Promoting a more civil and collaborative Congress.

“As you can imagine, it was viral,” Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) said, a deadpan that prompted his Republican wingman Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) to let out a laugh.

For the past year, the pair have overseen the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Their evenly divided panel, created last January, grew out of bipartisan frustration that the House was operating like a mid-20th century institution in a 21st century world.

Their mandate was nebulous — “develop recommendations on modernizing Congress.” And plenty of veteran lawmakers expected little.

But over the course of a year, Kilmer and Graves have offered 45 unanimous recommendations to the full House. Those suggestions range from some basic cost-cutting by allowing for more bulk purchases instead of each office buying supplies to recommending more technical training for both members and staff.

Thanks to a strange coalition of support, they have won another year to keep working on the tough issues that others have been afraid to tackle.

This committee’s task is daunting because so many other select committees have tried and failed to even make a single bipartisan proposal, most recently a temporary panel Kilmer served on regarding overhauling the budget process.

House freshmen get an education in limits of power and legislative pragmatism

Graves, 49, has decided to retire rather than seek reelection next year. A onetime rising star among tea party conservatives, he is devoting his last year in office to trying to fix Congress.

“I can think of no better way, no better capstone, to my legislative career than to end this with Derek in a positive way, with an incredible product so that future congresses will operate better,” Graves said.

The duo spoke in a joint interview in Kilmer’s office on the afternoon of Dec. 18, as the impeachment debate raged across the street in the House.

To demonstrate their bipartisan trust, Kilmer recently became the first Democrat to ever visit the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus that is the ideological foundation of the House GOP. And Graves visited the New Democrat Coalition, the caucus largely from the suburbs whose growth fueled the Democratic takeover in the 2018 midterm elections.

The committee’s suggestions include creating a members-only hangout space, where Republicans and Democrats could randomly run into each other and chat. Kilmer and Graves joke that right now, these kinds of interactions only happen at the House gym or on the House floor. As a result, some lawmakers end up in fights on Twitter before they’ve ever met in person.

Another suggestion is to have a bipartisan retreat for all House members and their families at the start of each new Congress, a very different offering than the current annual partisan retreats held outside Washington. They have also proposed that committee staff take bipartisan retreats to set annual agendas.

Kilmer, a business consultant by training, thinks these are no-brainer ideas. “Most functional organizations, when you do goal setting,” he said, “you do it collaboratively, right?”

The committee has also recommended expanding staff size for rank-and-file lawmakers, who are limited to just 18 slots split between their offices in Washington and in their districts.

That number places constraints on lawmakers. If one staff expert on an issue leaves for the private sector, another staffer must temporarily take on more work as a chief of staff on a shoestring budget tries to stretch funding to the limit, resulting in high turnover.

The median tenure for every staff position in Congress is three years or less, decreasing expertise and eroding what few bipartisan bonds exist among staff, Kilmer said. “The capacity of the institution erodes and what fills that space is the executive branch and lobbyists.”

Originally slated to expire this week, the panel found support in two unexpected places: a bipartisan group of nearly 40 freshmen who support the committee and a group of former members.

The newcomers have been here a short enough time that they are not wedded to doing things the way they have always been done, and the former lawmakers view this new group as a model for making Congress work in a fashion that could restore some of its glory.

“Their collaborative approach is as genuine as it is encouraging,” wrote the leaders of the Association of Former Members of Congress.

Against the odds, select committee aims to push Congress into the 21st century

With its lease on life extended another year, the modernizing committee is looking into issues that could rile up the hornet’s nest. Many lawmakers want to push for budgeting reform, including funding federal agencies on a two-year basis instead of the cumbersome annual process.

And junior lawmakers are clamoring to change scheduling processes: The average member serves on more than five committees or subcommittees, making it impossible to attend all hearings.

But those powers have long been the bastion of committee chairmen, who are loath to cede any control over how they go about their business.

And it’s unclear whether this committee will ever recommend higher salaries, at least for staff, a politically charged topic in an era when an effective 30-second commercial can end someone’s political career.

Graves and Kilmer are not naive when it comes to the broader forces of political polarization that have divided Congress, slowing the body’s business to a crawl and contributing to its historically long run of unpopularity.

“I wish I could tell you that I was confident that we will make recommendations that will heal all of the division in our society,” Kilmer said. “I don’t think that’s realistic.”

But Graves finds hope in the widespread the support for the committee, having received a hearty round of applause when he visited the New Democrat caucus and leading the applause for Kilmer when he visited the conservative RSC.

Three of the 12 committee members also serve on panels caught up in the partisan warfare of impeachment, yet those three have more than kept up their work on the little committee that might really succeed.

“I sense they see our committee as a place of refuge to come and to dig in and to try to bring more civility and more productivity,” Graves said. “And I think that’s what’s made me optimistic about this committee, because it’s a bright spot in all of this noise right now.”

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