Civility in Congress has turned into a joke. This panel is taking it seriously

ModCom hears range of ideas, from ‘civility scores’ to good behavior bingo

Reps. Jim Himes, D-Conn., left, and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., walk up the House steps at the Capitol for a vote in this file photo. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Reps. Jim Himes, D-Conn., left, and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., walk up the House steps at the Capitol for a vote in this file photo. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 23, 2021 at 4:18pm

The “Fix Congress” committee got so much out of its first two hearings this year on the elusive goal of civility, it agreed to hold a third.

“In my first year in Congress, and when there was minimal back and forth, it was nasty,” said Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress Vice Chairman William R. Timmons IV. “We need to have legitimate conversations on the challenges facing the American public, and we can’t do that in the current structure.” 

“We’ve proven that,” added Timmons, a South Carolina Republican. 

Despite a storm of partisan rancor brewing on Capitol Hill with just a week to go before a possible government shutdown, Thursday’s committee hearing looked unique. The members sat interspersed — Democrat next to Republican — around a conference table in an effort to encourage discussion as they heard from three experts on collaboration in the workplace and in Congress. 

The previous civility hearings focused on organizational psychology and the sources of political polarization. This one was squarely focused on how the committee can make recommendations to help lawmakers finally get along — or at least pretend to. 

During the hearing, members were allowed to ask questions without the rigid five-minute time limit enforced in other committees, and witnesses could chime in whenever they had something to say. The discussion was cordial, sports metaphors piled up and no one indulged in shameless grandstanding. At the conclusion of the hearing, some even applauded. 

“The structure we’re using is not cosmetic,” said Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer during the hearing. “I mean, it’s with an eye toward trying to foster some of the collaboration that we’re talking about today.”

The Washington Democrat said the incentive system on the Hill can sometimes feel out of whack. “It’s really hard for the boat to move forward if 40 percent of the oars in the water are rowing in one direction, 40 percent are rowing in the other and 20 percent of oars are out of the water, with people actively beating each other over the head,” Kilmer said in an interview.

With so much cynicism in Washington, the word “civility” has become more like a running gag than an actionable goal, but on Thursday the witnesses did their best to offer concrete steps to take, however small. 

“When I tell people I study collaboration in Congress, it usually prompts a joke … How can you study something that doesn’t exist?” said Alison Craig, a former congressional staffer who is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. 

The staffer-turned-academic is working on a book about how rank-and-file members of Congress work together to craft successful policy. She told lawmakers she’s had conversations with staffers who say their bosses want to be more bipartisan but assume it’s not worth the hassle or don’t know where to start.

Dating services have that last part all figured out, Craig said. “You could … set up an anonymous but moderated messaging board where staff can go out and post things like, ‘In search of Democrat on E and C interested in cybersecurity for possible letter,’” she said. 

Getting good attention

During the hearing, members decried colleagues who get more recognition for racking up social media hits or attention-getting stunts than those who work hard and get things done.

“If I took off my pants and ran around this building, then I’d get significant coverage tonight,” said committee member and Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II.

That’s a hard feedback loop to break, Cleaver said, “because nobody wants the media to get mad at them” for daring to take a quieter approach. 

Stunts may be here to stay, but congressional committees could incentivize better behavior by adopting “civility scores” for each member and posting them in a prominent place, said witness Shola Richards, an author and workplace consultant.

Other badges of honor could help too, said the third guest, author and corporate culture expert Liz Wiseman. Leaders could hand out special lapel pins to particularly collaborative members or post congratulatory signs on their office doors. To keep lawmakers honest, she proposed they cater to an exacting audience — middle school kids. 

Committees should routinely invite classes full of students to observe congressional hearings, Wiseman said. The kids could even fill out bingo cards as they watch, checking a box whenever they see positive behavior.

Other ideas floated in the hearing included a new bipartisan discharge petition process, a “director of civility” staff position, and dedicated funding for bipartisan pairs to dine out together at restaurants around town.  

Proposals like those could empower lawmakers who aren’t in leadership to make more progress with their fellow committee members and do it with less partisan bickering, witnesses said. 

The next step, Kilmer said in the interview, will be to meet with representatives from a constellation of groups focused on improving how Congress works, to hear input before devising recommendations for markup. 

A final push

House Modernization was initially authorized for a calendar year at the beginning of the 116th Congress in 2019 and was then extended until the end of the Congress. It was authorized again in 2021, this time for the entirety of the 117th Congress.

That two-year time frame has given the panel a longer runway for debating and making recommendations. Modernization does not have the authority to move legislation, but leaders have been tracking the progress of the 97 recommendations made during the last Congress and thinking about how they can get their new recommendations across the finish line when the “​​ModCom” is no longer around. 

Tucked into the committee’s final report at the end of the 116th Congress, authors summarized the efforts of select committees in the past — and it spurred the committee to think about capitalizing on the time they have. 

“Our committee in its entirety has spent a lot of time thinking about how do we break the streak of select committees that have looked at fixing things in Congress that have not exacted a lot of reform,” Kilmer said.

About 60 percent of the committee’s recommendations are either implemented or in the process of being implemented in some way, Kilmer said. 

The committee recently celebrated Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that she was delinking staff pay from member pay and raising the annual maximum salary for congressional aides to $199,300 — a recommendation the committee made in the 116th. The recent creation of the Chief Administrative Officer's HR Hub and coaching program are other recommendations that became reality. Kilmer said the committee’s new recommendations are devised with a final destination like the CAO or the House Administration Committee in mind. 

Hammering out specific proposals around a topic as amorphous as “civility” could prove to be a challenge, but Timmons said he’s committed to getting results that outlive his committee.

“We’ve been working on this particular subject really for 2 1/2 years, we have 15 months left and I think it’s the hardest area,” he said. “I think it’s extremely important. I think the future of our country depends on our success here. We have to succeed.”