Modernization Committee eyes accountability and new proposals

Key part of oversight will be follow-up on previous recommendations

From the very beginning, the House Modernization panel has tried to do things differently as it tries to cure what ails the legislative branch, says Chairman Derek Kilmer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From the very beginning, the House Modernization panel has tried to do things differently as it tries to cure what ails the legislative branch, says Chairman Derek Kilmer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 21, 2021 at 5:00am

Reps. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington, and William R. Timmons IV, a Republican from South Carolina, talk over each other on a joint phone call for just a moment before recognizing that they are in agreement and trying to say the same thing.

The pair are at the helm of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, leading the second leg of a massive effort to make the House, steeped in history and led by octogenarians, into a more efficient, effective and cooperative body.

The committee settled on 97 bipartisan recommendations during the last session on how to make Congress function better, and it's now building its agenda for the next two years. It will offer new recommendations on a rolling basis, going deeper into some issues it has already covered, such as staff retention, and exploring new areas for improvement.

This week, the panel will meet in private to set the agenda, with Kilmer and Timmons presenting an outline of issues and hearing topics for the next year and areas of focus for future recommendations.

“But, you know, this committee has consistently been really bipartisan and really inclusive, so I expect that we’ll iterate on that based on the feedback we get from members,” said Kilmer.

Both leaders said they were committed to keeping the committee’s process inclusive and bipartisan, as it was in the last Congress. All 97 proposals from the last Congress were supported unanimously by the modernization panel, but that might not be the case for future recommendations.

“I guess the only change in this Congress is going to be that we’re not going to shy away from things that aren’t unanimous,” said Timmons.

Proposals will still need widespread support from both sides of the proverbial aisle — although when meeting in person, committee members sit mixed together, not divided by party.

When there was a lone holdout or someone with strong opposition to a recommendation, the committee would move on to another proposal. This strategy was, in part, because the select committee was authorized for only one calendar year before being extended until the end of the 116th Congress.

“It was kind of a rush, and we didn’t want to spend too much time mulling over something that was going to be all the more challenging,” said Timmons. “But now that we have a full two years, it’s just a great opportunity to really dig in and address some more challenging issues.”

Authorized for the entirety of the 117th Congress, the panel has a longer runway for debate, deliberation and to take on issues that don’t have a quick fix, like overhauling continuity of Congress protocols and issues of civility and building bipartisan relationships.

“I’m kind of surprised that we don’t have a better plan in place, so I think that’s a no-brainer,” Timmons said about prioritizing continuity of Congress planning.

Timmons and Kilmer both acknowledged that reimagining what would come after a devastating attack on Congress or a natural disaster that kills a significant number of lawmakers is going to be hard and will take time. The issues range from members acknowledging their own mortality to constitutional questions about succession.

Timmons and Kilmer both said that changing norms to foster strong relationships across the aisle is another goal that may take creative thinking and time to upend patterns and traditions that divide lawmakers instead of bringing them together. They’ve recommended bipartisan retreats and orientations and hope to find spaces for members to gather casually.

Timmons is chipping away at the goal on a personal level, growing the number of Democratic members in his phone to five, from just two a few weeks ago.

Kilmer compares changing the culture and norms of the House to the rough seas of Gig Harbor, Wash., and a boat where rowers don’t always have the same goal.

“The water is really rough as it is, and it’s hard to move the boat as it is. But it’s really hard when half the boat is moving in one direction and the other half of the boat is trying to move in the other direction,” Kilmer said.

“I fully expect that we’re not going to get unanimity on something this Congress, but we’re going to do our best to get close, and I think that those endeavors will be very worthy,” said Timmons.

One significant shift from the panel’s previous agenda is following up on the nearly 100 proposals already out the door, holding accountable the people and entities with jurisdiction over changes and getting status updates on planning and implementation.

Some of the recommendations are in the hands of leadership, while others have landed on the desk of the House’s chief administrative officer or in the House Administration Committee.

“That’s probably one of the bigger challenges because we’ve got to track each recommendation, make sure that we have engaged with the right people, make sure that we are following up on it, and just pursue everything tirelessly and get it all done,” said Timmons. “We’re all willing to do whatever we need to do to get everything fully implemented.”

There is a clear demand for the follow-up and accountability among their fellow lawmakers. More than two dozen House members queued up virtually last week to bring their ideas and feedback on what needs to be fixed in Congress. And while some brought fresh ideas, many built on existing proposals.

“A lot of the comments by our colleagues were, ‘This was a smart recommendation to make; let’s make sure it happens,’” Kilmer said about the members day hearing testimony. “And that’s been a pretty consistent theme.”

While much of that might be behind the scenes, either with staff-level calls and meetings and committee members engaging with different entities, Timmons and Kilmer said there may also be public hearings where witnesses are called to answer questions on where implementation stands.

Leadership

With tight margins in the House and blistering partisanship, the Modernization Committee has become a destination for ideas that members want to get a serious examination, and it is a panel where a proposal can build bipartisan support and momentum. House leaders on both sides of the aisle have taken notice and engaged with the committee.

“Their input and thought partnership was also a recognition of the value of having bipartisan buy-in for some of the changes,” said Kilmer.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York both tuned in to the members day hearing last week to voice ideas for how to make pay and benefits for staffers more competitive with the private sector and other federal employers in order to retain talented staff.

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Hoyer called for an exploration of cutting the long-standing linkage between lawmaker pay and staff salaries, which caps staff pay from being more than members.

“This will be controversial with members,” Hoyer acknowledged.

A top Modernization aide has already been meeting with staff organizations to hear their ideas and concerns about the workplace, benefits and challenges that staff face.

Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana urged the panel to look at what a post-COVID-19 Congress looks like, including rolling back extended vote times implemented for social distancing and encouraging committees to meet in person to foster the casual off-microphone bipartisan interactions that can help build consensus.

Kilmer pointed out that Hoyer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and others came before the panel two years ago with ideas. But the fact that the committee’s work has been prioritized and extended and that leaders continue to engage is evidence that the bipartisan and solutions-based approach of the modernization panel holds value for top lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.