The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress unanimously approved two dozen recommendations Thursday, urging lawmakers to create a centralized human resources hub for staffers, resurrect the Office of Technology Assessment and make cybersecurity training mandatory.
The recommendations, the second batch for the one-year panel, also included making permanent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, updating the staff payroll system to semimonthly, creating a Congressional Leadership Academy to train lawmakers and reestablishing the OTA, which would advise Congress on technology matters.
“Today’s package is really a big deal,” said Georgia Rep. Tom Graves, the panel’s top Republican. Speaking to the committee’s chairman, Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, Graves said: “You brought Republicans and Democrats together. … That’s really why we were able to craft this important package.”
The recommendations also call for overhauling the House Information Resources unit, allowing lawmakers to test new technologies on their own and making bulk technology purchases to save money for individual member offices. They urge HIR to approve new technologies, such as a virtual private network, allowing for more remote work.
Additionally, the panel recommended raising the cap on the number of staffers serving in each office as well as requiring closed captioning of House broadcasts and a review of the Capitol complex to improve accessibility for people with disabilities.
House leaders tasked the select committee with offering recommendations for rehabilitating Congress in technology and cybersecurity, procedures and scheduling, as well as improving staff retention and diversity. The panel doesn’t have power to produce legislation.
Kilmer acknowledged the challenge ahead to turn the committee’s recommendations into actual legislation. “There’s more work from here,” he said.
Six Republicans and six Democrats make up the panel’s membership. A two-thirds majority of those voting is required to adopt recommendations. Kilmer and Graves tapped three full-time staffers and three fellows and are operating with a budget just shy of $500,000.
Outsiders following the committee’s work, including many former members of Congress, said the second slate of proposals made for a significant step.
“Cybersecurity training is very important, particularly with what’s happened in recent years with the Russians trying to interfere with our government,” said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who serves as president of the Former Members of Congress group, a bipartisan organization of ex-lawmakers that has met with members of the modernization panel.
“There are some things that are beyond the scope of this committee in terms of getting bipartisan agreement, and I think these are reasonable areas for them to be developing,” Frost said. “The important thing is that everything be done on a bipartisan basis with as much visibility and transparency as possible.”
The committee is likely to punt on such contentious matters as a cost-of-living increase for members of Congress and whether to revive congressionally directed spending known as earmarks.
Still, outsiders watching the panel, like Frost, say leaving town for the August recess with a slew of fresh recommendations may help the committee move forward on some thornier agenda items, including suggestions for biennial budgeting, changes to congressional procedures and overhauling the legislative calendar.
“This helps to maintain momentum and will give members and organizations who are supporting their effort the opportunity to talk about their progress in some areas that I think are significant,” said John Richter, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Congress Project. “It’s important that the committee is building up trust among its membership and getting some early wins before tackling harder things.”
The panel’s recommendation of a human resources hub could have far-reaching effects, said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, which advocates an overhaul of campaign finance laws.
“The HR hub is one of the key pieces to making Congress more effective and more efficient,” she said.
A former Hill aide herself, McGehee said most people leave Capitol Hill because of the relatively low pay and because of “bad management practices” by supervising aides. “You’re now putting in place, hopefully, the tools to start running the institution in a much more professional way.”
The committee approved its first set of recommendations in May, including an overhaul of lobbying disclosures and other steps for making behind-the-scenes action more open to the public. The committee suggested that Congress synchronize its systems for drafting, viewing and publishing legislation, and that it develop a centralized electronic hub for committee votes that would be available online in a machine-readable format.