The next day, Graves cast his last vote in the House, resigning a couple months before his already planned retirement, a man transformed after a lost decade of congressional dysfunction. He wishes his former colleagues well, hoping that they will reverse the trajectory of legislative atrophy on Capitol Hill.
For almost two years, Graves served as the vice-chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, alongside Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), the chairman, whom he now counts as a close friend. Their sleepy little temporary panel worked in the smartest fashion possible, forging early consensus on the relatively easy items and built toward tackling the politically challenging issues at the end.
The result is one of the most important proposals to reform Congress, with more weight than the countless wonky blue papers cranked out by think tanks that did nothing but gather dust. This new offering came from within the building, six Democrats and six Republicans, forging common ground despite serving during a brutally partisan time.
“Whether it’s the longest shutdown in history through impeachment, through just the floor battles, the rancor, and a pandemic, and now a Supreme Court vacancy,” Graves said in an hour-long joint interview with Kilmer just before his resignation. “Yet, somehow there was one committee in the House that has figured out how to operate, and, with a truly split committee, completely bipartisan, can get it done.”
The panel’s early work centered on lower-profile matters that were nevertheless important, such as updating technology and providing training for lawmakers to learn how to manage offices and ways to inject more civility into the hyperpartisan chamber.
Their final batch of recommendations, bringing the total to 97, focuses on ways to incentivize both lawmakers and staff to have more skin in the legislative game, proposals that would require the final say of House leadership.
“The reality is that there’s a massive turnover in these marble buildings. And every day, knowledge and capability walks out the door, usually headed to K Street,” Kilmer said.
He was referring to overworked and underpaid legislative staff, but it’s notable that half of the Republicans on this modernizing committee — Graves and Reps. Susan Brooks (Ind.) and Rob Woodall (Ga.) — are also retiring.
Graves, 50, arrived in June 2010 after winning a special election. Just 10 years later, after a complete turnover of Georgia’s delegation, he became the Peach State’s longest-tenured GOP member of Congress.
That brain drain leaves inexperienced lawmakers and staff trying to handle increasingly complex issues, a vacuum that a combination of congressional leadership and lobbyists on K Street can capitalize on.
As the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation earlier this year, Congress approved nearly $3 trillion in economic and health relief funds. Those four bills were negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a couple of her committee chairs, about a dozen key senators and a handful of Trump administration officials.
Rank-and-file lawmakers like Kilmer and Graves basically waited to be told when to show up and vote yes.
That’s why their most important recommendation is for the return of earmarks.
Soon after Graves arrived in Congress, Republicans swept the 2010 midterms and claimed the House majority. Their new, anti-corruption-minded speaker, John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), banished those narrow special interest spending items because they had been tied to many corruption investigations.
Like every new idea with such good intentions, it turned out disastrous.
As Kilmer and Graves note in their final report, it’s no coincidence that, since earmarks were banished, the already shaky congressional budget process fell off a cliff. The dozen annual funding bills for federal agencies almost never pass on time, and when they do get approved, they get lumped into large packages assembled by the top two members of the Appropriations Committee.
From 2013 through early 2019, there were at least three partial government shutdowns, two of which were the longest ever. In the previous 30 years, there was just one real shutdown.
“One of the biggest reasons, I think, Congress is held in low regard is because of the dysfunction that you’ve seen on budget and appropriations matters,” Kilmer said.
They believe that if members of Congress could be in charge of directing funding to their districts, they will be much more invested in the entire process.
Their proposal would limit earmarks to local entities like water authorities and police departments, not private companies, and that they would function like grant proposals. And if local officials abused the system, federal investigators would be empowered to claw back the funds.
A decision for $10 million here or $20 million there might not sound big, in a government that spends more than $3 trillion a year, but for the vast majority of lawmakers, they would be delivering for their constituents in ways they cannot currently imagine.
Kilmer and Graves took the same approach to staff salaries, which have languished for more than a decade even as Washington’s cost of living has skyrocketed, making the allure of K Street all the more attractive.
They recommended increasing the amount each lawmaker gets to spend, while also no longer capping pay to aides based on what members of Congress make.
They are basic, common-sense proposals that have been painfully obvious for years, but that few lawmakers had the political courage to support, particularly a Republican elected during the tea party era a decade ago.
Graves got kicked off the leadership’s vote-counting in his first full year in Congress because he voted against most of the Appropriations Committee spending proposals.
By 2013, he worked his way back into leadership’s good graces and two years ago lost a battle to be the top Republican on the committee that he once reviled.
His imprimatur on these proposals is significant, even if he has decided to abandon Congress, because the onetime burn-it-down firebrand now recognizes the ways to make Congress function — one of which is to make more friends from across the aisle.
“While I may be leaving and moving on in a little bit, for those that are looking for the secret sauce, Derek Kilmer’s the guy that figured it out,” he said.
Kilmer recalled an early retreat at the Library of Congress, where an outside facilitator asked lawmakers questions that were the verbal equivalent of rust falls:
“How did your experience of Congress diverge from what you expected? Why did you run?”
The lawmakers unloaded, unable to stop complaining.
They walked out of that meeting realizing how much their work was needed.
“Listen,” Graves told Kilmer, “we’ve got a lot we can work on, right? This is going to be ripe with opportunity.”