House doing ‘deep dive’ to smooth new member office setup

‘It’s been sort of a nightmare,’ House CAO Philip Kiko tells select committee

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other members of the 116th Congress' freshman class had several issues getting their offices up and running, which has prompted a "deep dive" by the House Chief Administrative Officer to address the problems. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the House is conducting a “deep dive” into the problems of setting up offices for the 116th Congress’ large freshman class, according to CAO Philip Kiko.

“It’s been sort of a nightmare,” Kiko told the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress during a Thursday hearing on ways to ease the transition for newly elected members.

Kiko said he’d gotten “a lot of negative feedback,” particularly about technological problems with setting up district offices and said the House was looking at new procedures for getting new lawmakers up and running.

“There’s over 80 steps that we have identified,” he said, showing a flow chart with the steps to setting up technology alone in a district office. “We think we can do a better job.” 

Kiko noted the press attention on the matter. Indeed, some high-profile freshmen, such as New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, became the subject of news stories for a delay in setting up her district office.

“We can’t properly set up our district offices,” she told “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” according to a New York Times report in January. “We can’t get laptops delivered. We can’t start doing the work that we were elected here to do.” She said the partial government shutdown was largely to blame.

The modernization panel, a one-year project aimed at making the legislative branch function better, also heard recommendations to create a centralized human resources department to free up incoming lawmakers to focus more time on the job of serving in Congress.

Congressional leaders created the select committee to offer recommendations for rehabilitating Congress on technology and cybersecurity, procedures and scheduling, as well as improving staff retention and diversity. It has hit its halfway mark but still has a big agenda in the remaining months.

Richard Shapiro, a former executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, said the common complaint about incoming lawmakers’ freshman orientation was that the experience was too overwhelming with a massive volume of information hitting new members all at once.

In an unusual twist, two freshman lawmakers on the modernization panel — Pennsylvania Democrat Mary Gay Scanlon and South Carolina Republican William R. Timmons IV — led the hearing, instead of Chairman Derek Kilmer of Washington and Republican vice chairman Tom Graves of Georgia.

Scanlon said that as a new member herself, she found the onboarding to be a “stressful and time-consuming process.”

Timmons suggested that House members record and archive freshman orientation and other trainings to allow new lawmakers to catch up on sessions they missed or need to review on their own schedule.

Shapiro pressed the panel to consider recommending a centralized human resources office as well as an earlier and tighter focus on training new members on the most essential components and then provide greater support for other needs throughout the first term.

The lack of an HR department for the House, Shapiro said, “impairs operational effectiveness and places the burden of solving a wide range of office operational challenges” on each lawmaker’s office.

Timmons said he was surprised by the separation by political party of representatives-elect during orientation, including riding on different buses, and recommended that freshmen lawmakers get more time to cultivate relationships with one another to foster more bipartisan collaboration.

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