Self-help guide to Congress: Reports detail ways the institution could better itself

House offices proposed ways to make things more efficient

Congress could improve its own operations and better serve constituents through a series of proposals in reports released on Friday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Congress could improve its own operations and better serve constituents through a series of proposals in reports released on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 10, 2020 at 4:22pm

Updated, 8:45 p.m. | Proposals for how Congress could overhaul the lobbying disclosure system, provide lawmakers with continuing education opportunities and make legislative action more transparent are just a few of the big ideas in reports made public by the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on Friday.

In early March, the House approved a resolution that included 29 recommendations from the panel, and called for more than 20 reports on a wide array of issues. The reports included those from the House Clerk’s office, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Chief Administrative Officer.

“As we make these reports public, I’m glad to be laying the groundwork towards implementing the Select Committee’s recommendations into internal reforms that make the House of Representatives more transparent, cultivate diversity and improve retention among staff, promote civility and collaboration, and create a more effective legislative branch,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who chairs the House Administration Committee and is a member of the select committee.

The modernization reports can be found here.

Lobbying disclosures

The Office of the House Clerk submitted two possible solutions for a nagging problem with the existing system for collecting and cataloging mandatory disclosures from registered lobbyists. Lobbying firms and individual lobbyists, under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, are required to disclose this information on a quarterly basis.

“The current system relies on a less-than-fool-proof method of post processing of lobbyist information to determine whether a lobbyist being registered as new already exists in the system,” says the clerk’s report.

Within the system, lobbyists who change firms, work for multiple firms or change their names end up with multiple IDs within the system, ballooning the number of registrations.

The clerk’s office has identified two potential solutions to the problem: either cleaning up the current database and incrementally improving the validation process or building a new process that ties registration information to a source of personally identifiable information, such as a driver’s license.

The clerk’s office says next steps include evaluating potential pros and cons of greater use of personally identifiable information in the lobbying registration process and methods to ensure security of the information.

Changes to the lobbyist registration validation process would require agreement between the House and the Senate, a major hurdle. But meetings are already under way. According to the report, the House Clerk’s office met most recently on May 13 with the Senate to discuss the challenges of maintaining the lobbyist database.

Lawmaker learning

In response to reports and legislation from the Modernization Committee identifying a lack of professional development and institutional training opportunities for lawmakers outside of a brief orientation, the Chief Administrative Officer submitted a report on the feasibility of creating a pilot program to address the issue.

Among the 29 bipartisan recommendations adopted in March was the creation of a pilot Congressional Leadership Academy for members.

A February report from the panel included the recommendation that lawmakers have access to “seminars on the legislative process and procedural matters, such as how to chair a hearing, the budget and appropriations process, and rules of the House and committee procedures, and on professional development topics like managing an office and developing better negotiation and bargaining skills.”

The Chief Administrative Office was tasked with surveying members to determine the level of interest among members in a Congressional Leadership Academy and reporting back on the results and estimated costs of establishing and operating such a resource. But the report didn’t include details requested by the Modernization panel, just a to-do list for eventually completing the survey and report.

The CAO submitted a revised and dramatically condensed timeline for preparing the survey and putting it in the field.

The original timeline, from submitting the survey for approval to completing the final report, was from April 10 to July 8, but the “revised timeline” squeezes the entire process into just six weeks from June 15 to July 30.

Inclusion included

The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion,  an independent, nonpartisan entity that works as a resource for House offices by increasing awareness of diversity issues among staff in Congress, submitted its report on hiring regulations for the office.

The House Administration Committee approved the regulations as a committee resolution by “poll,” not a full markup, on May 29. They include authorization of seven full-time staff and one part-time employee, along with interns.

Other business

Reports on establishing and maintaining a database of votes taken in committees, a database of information on the expiration dates of all federal programs and adopting standardized formats for legislative documents are among other topics covered in the modernization panel’s release Friday. 

“This committee’s mission is to make Congress work better for the American people, which includes boosting transparency and finding ways to ‘open up’ the People’s House with just a click of a mouse,” said Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Vice Chairman Tom Graves, R-Ga. 

This report was revised to include a link to all of the modernization reports.