It’s one of the most important committees in Congress, yet it has only temporary office space. It has just two full-time legislative staff members. And it borrows other committees’ rooms to hold hearings.
But against those odds, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is pushing ahead with a bipartisan approach that could produce some of the most important work of the 116th Congress. On Thursday, the panel presented its first set of recommendations, on making the House more transparent, and committee members are poised to dig into other, more intractable problems, such as increasing funding to hire and retain a better, more diverse staff and adopting a calendar that allows for real legislative results.
If their colleagues agree to some of these changes, this committee could end up making the place function in a way that produces dividends for years to come.
“I think the American people certainly see a lot of what happens here and think, ‘Dear God, why is it this broken?’ ” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), the chairman of the 12-member panel, on which Democrats and Republicans have an equal number of seats.
“People want that purpose and fulfillment in doing their job. There is a longing to do it,” Rep. Tom Graves (Ga.), the top Republican on the committee, said during the first joint interview the two have done.
Dismissing their work is easy to do.
Congress has a long history of establishing select committees and blue-ribbon commissions to tackle tough issues that lawmakers are unwilling to deal with through regular order, only for these temporary panels to end their work in gridlock or see their recommendations buried in dustbins.
This select committee was born out of political wheeling and dealing. Just after the midterm elections thrust Democrats into the majority in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lacked enough support to win the vote for House speaker, so she agreed to demands from a bipartisan group of moderates for internal reforms, including the creation of this committee to study and recommend institutional changes.
However, rather than simply serving as a bargaining chip for Pelosi, the committee has gained steam in the past two months, driven by more than 90 freshman Democrats and Republicans.
The congressional newcomers hail from all variety of backgrounds — military combat veterans, federal prosecutors, successful CEOs, National Football League players — and have been uniformly stunned to discover a place lacking basic best practices.
Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who ran several start-ups and restaurants in the Twin Cities region, remembers walking into the Longworth House Office Building for the first time, with his family, just before taking the oath of office. They surveyed the old mahogany, areas of clutter and the lack of collaborative workspaces.
“Welcome to 1935,” his brother told him.
A little later, someone handed Phillips an official House pager. “Welcome to 1985,” his brother said.
Phillips said that in testimony before the select committee, he singled out the “social and physical design” flaws in an institution that seems designed to isolate lawmakers from one another.
Graves called these “fantastic insights” that had not occurred to him in his more than nine years in Congress. “Everything is dark and dreary and small rooms. It’s square. I think it was a really neat perspective,” he said.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), a freshman from the Philadelphia suburbs, served in the Air Force, was an executive at a sports apparel company and also ran a nonprofit organization. She has been given prized assignments on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees.
Frequently, because committees hold hearings at the same time, she bounces between rooms trying to be in two places at once, cheapening each experience.
Having also taught high school, she said that educators have a better grip on scheduling — so she proposed adopting a school-like schedule of A and B days, for when committees can hold hearings so that lawmakers can actually attend.
Kilmer, the Washington state Democrat, said it is “undeniable that members feel like they need several clones to work their way through the day. That, as a consequence, means that as an institution, we’re not always making the best decisions.”
Many freshmen complained that their two weeks of orientation were partisan exercises in which they left their hotel and boarded separate buses for separate Democratic and Republican meetings. Their orientation experience established divisions before they even took the oath of office.
Phillips said that dozens of freshmen, working across party lines, want old-time lawmakers to realize that just because something always has been done a certain way is not a reason to continue a practice.
Kilmer said he learned a lesson from his recent service on a select committee that aimed to improve the budget process but ended its work in deadlock. One lesson was to roll out recommendations once there is unity, rather than waiting to release one final report. So the modernization panel unanimously approved and released five transparency suggestions Thursday.
One proposal calls for a unified software program to ease the process of tracking changes that have been made to legislative text, from committee rooms to the House floor.
“Microsoft Word has this — this is very simple — but Congress doesn’t,” Graves said.
Some veteran lawmakers see what the newcomers are discovering. “We’re an 18th-century institution using 20th-century technology to solve 21st-century problems,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who is in her eighth term, told the select committee.
Some issues, such as increasing staff salaries, are politically sensitive. A group of former lawmakers, including former members of leadership such as Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), called for increasing funding for House staffers.
Funding for House offices is slated to be $60 million less in 2020 than in 2010. Meanwhile, Washington’s cost of living has exploded. Older aides have abandoned Capitol Hill for lobbying jobs or federal agencies with higher salaries, leaving behind a congressional workforce with a much larger proportion of less-experienced 20-somethings.
“Congress as an institution sees its capacity erode. What fills that void is the executive branch and lobbyists. Again, that doesn’t serve the interests of the American people,” Kilmer said.
None of the modernization committee’s suggestions guarantee that, if they are adopted, Congress will come together with solutions for overhauling immigration laws or shrinking the massive federal debt.
But Kilmer and Graves think the proposals might be necessary first steps.
“People really want to work together,” Graves said. “There is a strong yearning and desire for bipartisan outcomes and results.”