Never mind impeachment, this bipartisan committee is going forward

House modernization panel prepares for its second year

Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., right, and vice chairman Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., are seen during a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress business meeting in the Capitol earlier this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amid the partisan polarization of impeachment, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress began examining possible changes Thursday to the chamber’s rules and procedures, seeking out ideas to make the legislative branch function better. 

The panel, a temporary and bipartisan project to revamp Congress for the modern era, is tasked with offering recommendations about how to update technological savvy on Capitol Hill and how to improve the quality of work for lawmakers and staff. It began earlier this year as a one-year effort but will now carry on through next year with a fresh infusion of funds and through the divisive 2020 elections.  

Perhaps as a tangible example of some lawmakers’ job dissatisfaction, the hearing came just hours after the committee’s top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia, announced he would not seek reelection in 2020.

[Georgia's Tom Graves won’t run for reelection in 2020

He said he remained committed to the panel as a way “to fix this broken place” that he’s preparing to depart. 

Earmarks brought back?

Graves, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, solicited ideas about whether the House’s nearly decadelong ban on earmarks had been effective and whether there might be a way forward that would empower the legislative branch. Earmarks refer to lawmaker-directed spending, typically for projects in their congressional districts or states.

They generated controversy as vehicles for potential corruption, but they also served as something of a legislative grease in Capitol Hill deal-making.

“There’s this myth out there that presidents don’t do pork,” said C. Lawrence Evans, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary. He said instead of curbing overall government spending, the ban on congressional earmarks shifted the decision-making for where the money goes from lawmakers to executive branch officials. 

“So the question is: Do you know your districts better than they do?” Evans told Graves, “And I think the answer is yes.” 

Christopher M. Davis, an analyst on Congress and the legislative process for the Congressional Research Service, noted that House rules aren’t standing in the way of earmarks. Instead, he said, it’s a function of leadership policies.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey of New York said earlier this year that she wanted to bring back earmarking, but that did not happen. 

The Modernization panel also looked at possible recommendations for improving bipartisan collaboration and collegiality on Capitol Hill. Natalie Wood of the National Conference of State Legislatures said that some procedures can mitigate polarization, at least at the state level, including giving committees more authority over the legislative process.

Since at least the 1990s on Capitol Hill, the leadership in both parties has consolidated power, frequently controlling legislation and limiting the role of committees. 

“Committees are particularly effective when leaders give them the freedom to negotiate and act,” Wood said. 

Evans noted the decline in the number of congressional committee aides. Committee staffs, he said, have shrunk by some 50 percent, starving the panels of the policy expertise necessary to keep pace with lobbyists and officials in the executive branch. 

Evans also made a pitch for committee aides who work for both the majority and minority members of a panel.

The panel’s chairman, Derek Kilmer of Washington, paid tribute to Graves, calling him a “stupendous partner” in the effort to overhaul the legislative branch.

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