Congress’ “This Old House” committee, a brand-new panel tasked with helping to update the legislative branch for the modern era, is already sparking attention off of Capitol Hill.
Outside interests — from government overhaul groups and think tanks to tech industry players — are mobilizing to influence the new House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The year-long, 12-lawmaker panel will offer recommendations for rehabilitating Congress in such areas as technology and cybersecurity, procedures and scheduling, staff retention and executive branch oversight.
The committee offers evidence of lawmakers’ own angst with the legislative body’s waning power and dwindling resources. It also highlights concerns on and off Capitol Hill about the revolving door between Congress and K Street, where, because of high turnover, lobbyists often wield more institutional knowledge and policy gravitas than congressional aides.
“I guess the good news is that there’s no shortage of people who think that Congress is a fixer-upper and needs some help,” said Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, chairman of the committee. “Candidly, I want to hear good ideas everywhere we can find them.”
House leaders installed the full slate of six Democrats and six Republicans as of Feb. 12, and Kilmer says he’s working to hire staff and schedule hearings, along with the panel’s top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia. Lawmakers of both parties approved the committee as part of House Democrats’ rules package in January. No Senate counterpart exists.
Kilmer says the effort is an acknowledgment that Congress could work better for the voters who send lawmakers here.
“Every time you see a bill written behind closed doors, every time you see a shutdown, or when things in D.C. feel too close to the Jerry Springer Show, it erodes public trust in the process,” he added.
The effort is attracting interest from such left-leaning groups as Demand Progress to Republican-aligned organizations such as the Congressional Institute, which sponsors retreats for GOP lawmakers, and even to the nonaligned Bipartisan Policy Center, among others.
Go big or go home
“They should aim big,” said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, who has shared with the committee relevant white papers his group has put together on how to overhaul the legislative branch.
He’s prodding the committee to make suggestions about overhauling the budget process — he suggests a two-year cycle, doubling the current length — and restoring congressionally directed spending, otherwise known as earmarks.
House members have given the new panel broad jurisdiction but not a lot of authority, Strand added. The committee can’t offer legislation, for example.
“This is a problem for them, but it’s also kind of a blessing,” he said. “They can call attention to the big issues, and then they can go to the leadership and say, ‘Let’s expand this.’”
The committee requires a two-thirds majority vote on any of its recommendations.
“That’s a high bar,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, which houses the Rebuild Congress Initiative. “This select committee will look at how to make the life of the rank-and-file legislator not suck so much. How do you make the system itself, the committees, the schedule — how do you make the institution function better?”
Many people on both sides of the aisle, on and off the Hill, say they’d like a return to opening up the amendment process on the floor and more power to committees, instead of consolidated in leadership offices.
The panel will also grapple with staffing challenges for an institution that has 1,000 fewer committee aides than it did 25 years ago.
“At the very top of the list, I would say, Congress should invest in their people to help them govern better,” said Kevin Kosar, a leader of the nonpartisan Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group and vice president of policy at the R Street Institute, a think tank with libertarian roots.
Lawmakers and congressional staff alike routinely depart for K Street gigs, which pay better and typically offer better flexibility in working hours. Data from Lee Drutman, another co-chairman of the Legislative Branch Capacity Working Group, and Alexander Furnas showed an uptick in members of Congress and government officials becoming lobbyists — from about 10 percent in 1998 to 25 percent in 2008. That trend has continued over the past decade, as well.
Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, who refers to the panel as “the fix Congress committee,” said that “Congress is weak because the lobbyists are strong.”
Kilmer says staff capacity, as well as diversity in hiring and quality of life for those on the Hill, will be priorities for his committee. He noted that no position in the House has a median tenure of longer than four years.
The Washington Democrat also says technology will be a central focus, including the actual tools the legislative branch uses as well as how lawmakers can better understand the fast-changing technological advances that fall under their jurisdiction.
Some Hill observers such as William A. Galston, author of “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy,” suggest that Congress look at resurrecting the Office of Technology Assessment, which lawmakers axed in 1995, to give the legislative branch better access to in-house expertise.
“The hearings on technology in Congress in recent years have been national embarrassments,” Galston said, adding that it was clear most members “didn’t know what they were asking their witnesses about.”
Added Schuman: “The information revolution hasn’t come to the legislative branch, and they suffer.”
Tech interests also stand ready to offer their points of view.
“One area where we think a modernized Congress could take advantage of business best practices would be using cloud computing services that provide the best mix of efficiency, redundancy, and case management tools,” said Stewart Verdery, who runs Monument Advocacy, which represents technology and other clients.
‘Hey, I’ve got an idea’
Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, is working through the American Political Science Association to bring together academia’s brightest ideas for a congressional overhaul, he said.
“We don’t have any dog in this hunt other than helping Congress function better,” Galston said. “It’s a consensus that Congress is largely a dysfunctional institution. We’re saying, ‘Houston, we have a problem.’”
A panel of political scientists from around the country will convene in Washington — with Galston and Kosar as hosts — in early March to discuss their proposals.
Lawmakers, including those not on the select committee, already are offering their two cents, too.
Kilmer says when his colleagues see him walking to votes around the capitol complex, “They’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea for you.’”
He’s all ears.