‘Fix Congress Committee’ launches framework for earmark revival

Modernization panel approves 40 recommendations at its final meeting

The Capitol could operate very differently if the House Modernization of Congress Committee can get some of its recommendations approved. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Capitol could operate very differently if the House Modernization of Congress Committee can get some of its recommendations approved. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 24, 2020 at 7:18pm

An 18-month effort to make Congress work smarter has yielded 97 official recommendations from the House Modernization of Congress Committee and aims to stem the brain drain among staffers, boost congressional capacity, and overhaul the budget and appropriations process.

“It’s not 100, but 97 is still an A,” said Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, the panel’s chairman.

Committee members advanced their final slate of 40 proposals Thursday in the last meeting of the select committee, which was originally only slated to last one year. The panel’s final report will be released in the coming weeks and, according Kilmer, will lay out “in gory detail” the decline in congressional staffing and capacity that the institution faces.

Unlike most panels on Capitol Hill, the Modernization Committee is evenly split with six Democrats and six Republicans, and has been unusually bipartisan. Kilmer and Georgia Republican Tom Graves, who serves as vice chairman, have made collegiality a priority. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they even mixed up the seating chart so that Republicans sat next to Democrats instead of each party on separate sides.

The group forged ahead together, even as an impeachment inquiry tore at the fabric of the nation and stoked partisanship, and a global pandemic challenged lawmakers and staff to reimagine legislative business and constituent services in the digital space.

The panel, sometimes popularly known as the “Fix Congress Committee,” unanimously approved a slate of recommendations in May 2019 aimed at making more congressional information open to the public. Committee members approved another series of proposals in July 2019 urging lawmakers to create a centralized human resources hub for staffers and to require cybersecurity training. Those recommendations also included making permanent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, updating the staff payroll system to semimonthly and creating a Congressional Leadership Academy to train lawmakers.

In early March, the House approved a resolution that included 29 recommendations from the Modernization panel, on staff retention and diversity, prioritizing opportunities for bipartisan socializing, and developing a more unified system for personnel management.

But the final tranche of proposals address nearly all of the main problems that lawmakers and legislative branch watchers have identified for years as limiting the efficacy of Congress.

The panel is proposing a revamp of the House calendar to section off guaranteed time for more committee work, reduce conflicts that force lawmakers to choose between committee duties, and allow for a bipartisan retreat.

Their hope is that reinvestment in committee business has the potential to revive collaboration and strengthen the voice of rank-and-file members who have been shut out of massive legislative packages crafted by leadership behind closed doors in recent years.

Other recommendations are aimed at keeping bright and motivated staffers from leaving the Hill for the allure of K Street salaries. Many lawmakers and advocates have raised concerns that high turnover rates and low salaries mean that institutional memory is lost and makes lobbying interests more powerful.

The panel seeks to increase office budgets in the House, which are used to pay staffers, and end salary caps that make recruiting highly specialized staff a challenge. They also recommend enhancing student loan payment programs and some health care benefits.

‘North Star’ for earmark revival

Kilmer noted Thursday during the Modernization panel’s final meeting that the committee has operated under trying circumstances and unprecedented upheaval during the 116th Congress.

“The very fact that this committee’s launch was delayed by a government shutdown over the budget pretty much says it all,” he said.

The panel approved seven recommendations focused on the budget and appropriations process, which many on both sides of the aisle consider to be broken and ineffective.

The last time a standalone appropriations bill was signed into law was 2012, and 1996 marked the last time Congress completed all spending bills on time and avoided a continuing resolution.

Among the proposals on spending and reclamation of congressional authority is a framework to reintroduce directed spending.

Earmarks were banished from the House in 2011. The ban, championed by Speaker John A. Boehner, was built on promises of reining in government spending and restoring trust in Congress after pet-project scandals had tainted the earmark process in the eyes of the public.

“What we developed is truly a framework, and it’s a recognition that one day, I think we all know and expect that congressionally directed spending would return,” Graves said Thursday.

He said he intended the guidance on directed spending from the Modernization panel to be the “North Star” of how to reintroduce the practice and provide structure.

The panel is proposing a Community-Focused Grant Program, or CFGP, as a competitive grant program aimed at supporting projects that originate at the local level and have support within the communities receiving a grant.

That might sound like earmarks by another name, but Kilmer and Graves said there are parameters they hope will keep the congressionally directed spending from being concentrated with the most powerful lawmakers and their constituents.

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Graves emphasized that project proposals would not, under the guidance, be driven by members motivated to show voters how many federal dollars they can rake into their districts. He envisions members as just “the conduit, the facilitator, or the shepherd” of a proposal that originates from the community itself.

He pointed to oversight that would give an inspector general the authority to report on the use of funds and potentially “claw back any of the money that might not be utilized properly or as it was proposed by the local community.”

The report will recommend some type of cap to prevent inequitable distribution of funds, according to Kilmer. But the panel opted not to prescribe in detail what that should look like.

“There should be a principle of equitable distribution in care to avoid a situation where a small number of members would direct far more investments than the rest of the body,” Kilmer said.

Historically, seniority and power on the Appropriations Committee allowed lawmakers to wield their influence to pump money into projects in their states and districts. They could then tout the research facilities, jobs created and other economic boons on the campaign trail.

The Modernization proposal suggests that a public government website be established to intake and display project proposals from communities and lawmakers as a transparency tool. Kilmer said that under the plan, grants would have to appear on that website as a member request before appearing in a final piece of legislation.

“That was really targeted at trying to address the issue of airdrops,” Kilmer said, “where often something may end up in a bill that maybe hadn’t been seen before.”

The framework also encourages bipartisan cooperation and collaboration between lawmakers in neighboring districts.

“Oftentimes, a community overlaps congressional districts,” Graves said.

If a community that would benefit from one of these federal grants straddles multiple districts, Graves said those representatives should be encouraged to build consensus to help the constituents on all sides of a district’s boundaries, instead of competing against each other for the same dollars only to help an arbitrary portion of the community.

In early 2020, there was discussion among House appropriators about potentially reestablishing earmarks. Vulnerable Democrats raised concerns about transparency and the traditionally concentrated power of established leaders and the idea was tabled for another year.

Graves on Thursday also credited his co-chair with reaching out to committee leaders, asking them to meet and hear about the proposals the Modernization panel was working on.

“They said, ‘OK, let’s see what you got,’” Graves told reporters.

Supporters argue that the earmark ban on directed spending has eroded the congressional power of the purse and ceded it to the executive branch.

Kilmer told reporters Thursday that the framers intended for federal spending decisions to be made for local communities by their elected representatives, who understand the needs of their districts and states best.

“For most of the last decade, those responsibilities have slid to the executive branch. And today you’ve got executive branch employees making decisions on behalf of Congress and on behalf of the American people instead of those closest to their community,” Kilmer said.

He said the return of directed spending, with guardrails, could end an era in which Congress has boosted budgets for executive branch projects “with the hope that somehow some that will be directed to your local community.”

The Modernization panel isn’t alone in considering the return of earmarks. It has become a major discussion point in the race for top Democrat on House Appropriations.

Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida have each committed to bringing back earmarks if chosen to succeed retiring Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey after the November elections. A third candidate, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, didn’t embrace that stance but didn’t rule it out, saying it was “premature” to discuss restoring earmarks at this stage.

Under the Modernization panel’s proposal, the grant program framework would only be possible if larger deficiencies in the budget and appropriations process are solved along the way, because grant projects wouldn’t be allowed in continuing resolutions.

The select committee isn’t the first to set out with the agenda to fix the dysfunctional budget and spending process in Congress, but it has made it further than its predecessor.

The 115th Congress established the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, a bicameral, bipartisan committee with the aim of proposing significant changes to fix what many called a broken budget process. But at the last moment, the panel was unable to reach consensus and ended up approving no recommendations.

Kilmer, who served on the failed joint committee, saw an opportunity for the Modernization panel to harvest knowledge, ideas and insights from its predecessor. The joint panel’s co-chairs, Lowey and Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., testified before a Modernization panel hearing, and Kilmer said the pair provided a starting point for approaching a revamp of the budget and spending process.

The Modernization Committee’s recommendations on budget and appropriations will face an additional hurdle if they are eventually repackaged into actionable legislation for the House to consider.

Unlike the proposals focused on House operations, staffing and scheduling, which could be implemented through a standalone resolution, legislation to change the budget and spending process would require approval in the House and the Senate, along with the president’s signature.

Kilmer acknowledges that this is a high bar that few bills have cleared in the divided 116th Congress, but he is holding out hope that the consensus-building and commitment to finding common ground that his panel exhibited could pave the way for further action on these items.

“I think there’s an opportunity to reduce dysfunction in the annual budgeting process and provide more certainty,” he said. “This committee, on a bipartisan basis, looked at this as a tool to hopefully end the era of government shutdowns.”

The rest of the House-centric recommendations are expected to be wrapped into a resolution for the House to consider before the end of the year.

The vote could move forward without its vice chairman, Graves, who said in December he would not seek another term, and announced last week that he plans to resign from Congress next month.

He said that with the Modernization panel’s work coming to a close, he intends to leave the House once final recommendations have been adopted and “and begin the next chapter of life in October.”

Kate Ackley, Jennifer Shutt and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.