House votes to modernize itself, adopts 29 bipartisan recommendations

Modernization panel aims to increase efficiency, bolster bipartisanship

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., co-chairman of the Modernization panel, said the resolution the House passed would help Congress function more efficiently. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., co-chairman of the Modernization panel, said the resolution the House passed would help Congress function more efficiently. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:00pm

The House is ready to make long overdue, behind-the-scenes changes, and it set those in motion by adopting a resolution on implementing 29 recommendations of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

The House voted 395-13 on Tuesday to approve the recommendations, which were put together by the 12-member committee equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. The panel was established in 2019 to promote a more modern and efficient Congress, and its recommendations are aimed at improving House operations, including administrative efficiencies like purchasing, travel, and staffing and technology.

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“Our hope is that all of these recommendations will see forward progress quickly,” Modernization Committee co-Chairman Derek Kilmer told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday.

In order to put forth and adopt the recommendations, lawmakers had to acknowledge what is wrong with how Congress operates. One easy target: technology.

“Trying to solve 21st-century problems with 20th-century technologies is a disservice to the American people who rightfully expect timely action from their representatives,” Kilmer said on the floor.

The resolution requires the House Chief Administrative Office to report to the House on the Office of House Information Resources on issues including the “systemic inability” to deliver enterprise programs and information technology in a timely manner. It also requires the creation of a streamlined process for the approval of outside technology vendors.

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It also recommends that lawmakers band together to purchase office technology in bulk in order to save taxpayer money and to mandate cybersecurity training for members and staff.

Centralized HR and staffing suggestions

The resolution includes recommendations on hiring and human resources, a tall order in a workplace that has 435 bosses who run their offices differently and have separate staffing policies. The resolution requires the creation of a human resources hub for all lawmakers and staff.

Reports and surveys in recent years have highlighted that diversity among staff on Capitol Hill is lacking, and the resolution would make the Office of Diversity and Inclusion created at the start of the 116th Congress a permanent entity in the House tasked with helping guide House offices to recruit, hire, train, develop, advance, promote and retain a diverse workforce. On Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she was appointing Kemba Hendrix, currently director of the House Democratic Diversity Initiative, to be the director of the office.

The resolution requires the CAO and House inspector general to report on the feasibility of updating the employee payroll system and to explore paying staffers more than just once a month.

It would also force a reevaluation of the size of the staffs serving each lawmaker and district. Currently, members are limited to 18 full-time staff members and four part-time staffers.

“Many members, particularly in rural areas like my district in central Washington, have multiple district offices, and members should be able to staff their offices as they see fit,” said Republican Dan Newhouse. “Empowering members to adequately staff both district and D.C. offices can improve retention, but more importantly, it can improve communications with our constituents.”

The resolution would require the CAO to contract a firm to report on adjusting the limits on the number of employees in member offices and make recommendations on employee salaries and costs and potential changes to members’ representational allowances necessary.

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The effort includes provisions to foster bipartisan relationships and give lawmakers more opportunities to congregate and even socialize across the partisan divide.

“When I first arrived in Washington, I remember having to get on a bus with only Republicans,” said South Carolina Rep. William R. Timmons IV. “I was shocked that new members would not be briefed together, that this kind of partisanship was encouraged from the very start.”

The resolution requires that the House Administration Committee organize a nonpartisan new member orientation that includes in-person courses on rules of the House, decorum and debate, and other courses on practices to promote civility and respect.

Lawmakers reported to the Modernization panel that they would like the Capitol complex to have spaces to gather, collaborate or socialize privately with members from either party. They asked for a dedicated bipartisan space, unlike the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms, to encourage consensus building.

House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren acknowledged that the work of the Modernization panel might not be sexy or attention-grabbing, but she said improving internal processes will help Congress better serve the country.

“We have been focused on the need of internal reforms to improve our work for the American people,” Lofgren said. “If you read the report, some of it is boring. That is good.”

Next steps

Kilmer told CQ Roll Call that next steps for the Modernization panel include continuing talks with House appropriators about parts of the resolution that will need to be folded into the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill. He said the committee is working on turning the third set of recommendations into a resolution for the House to consider later this year.

Illinois Republican Rodney Davis, the ranking member on the House Administration Committee, used part of his debate time to ask for a brief moment of silence for Modernization panel co-Chairman Tom Graves and his family. Graves’ son was seriously injured in a cycling accident over the weekend.

Daniel Peake and Kate Ackley contributed to this report.