The “Fix Congress” committee is no more.
The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was chaired by our state’s 6th Congressional District Rep. Derek Kilmer and tasked with the seemingly impossible job of finding ways to make Congress less toxic and run better.
After four years, the committee – which Kilmer called the “Fix Congress” committee — expired at the end of 2022. House leadership did not extend the life of the body whose job was to brainstorm ways to make Congress more effective.
“We had a mission of making Congress work better. We spent four years examining everything from staff capacity to outdated technology, to the impacts of increased polarization. We really tried to focus on how to build a better institution that is more responsive to the needs of the American people,” Kilmer said.
Major accomplishments included taking steps to improve the civility in the sometimes tumultuous halls of Congress; promoting ways to retain support staff lawmakers rely on to do their jobs; and enabling Congress to have more say in how federal funds are spent in their districts. To help tear help down the walls of division between Democrats and Republicans, the committee pushed to change how incoming lawmakers undergo orientation.
“Members talked about the fact that when they showed up in Congress, they were literally told, ‘OK Democrats, you get on this bus; Republicans, you get on that bus.’ Much of the orientation process was designed to keep the two parties apart from each other,” Kilmer said. “One of our recommendations was to stop doing that and instead, set up a process to focus on building collaboration and have events where they bring in outside speakers with expertise [on collaboration] and bring Democrats and Republicans together.”
Incoming lawmakers for the new Congress were invited to such an event. Legislators heard New York Times bestselling author and investigative journalist Amanda Ripley share her insights on how to reduce conflict within Congress. “There were Democrats and Republicans breaking bread and having a discussion around a really important subject,” Kilmer said.
He admits changes to orientation will not solve the ills of a divisive Congress. “It’s not going to be a silver bullet. It’s not like all of a sudden you can eliminate societal polarization overnight. But these targeted interventions can make the institution function better,” the Gig Harbor lawmaker said.
Congress has had difficulty retaining staff that does vital research and advises elected officials on important topics. The average tenure of such personnel is less than three years, Kilmer noted.
“We made a number of recommendations focused on employee recruitment and retention,” he said. “It’s really hard to solve problems when people with expertise leave the Hill to go work for lobbying shops. It’s a problem when the institution is overly reliant on lobbyists. So, building more in-house competence, I think, is important,” he said.
Staff pay was also addressed. The group’s recommendations helped remove a rule that capped pay at what their supervising lawmaker was making. This meant a veteran staff member with specialized knowledge was unable to make more than the legislator they worked for, who might be a new member of Congress.
The “Fix Congress” committee also advised Congress to invest in the professional development of staff to incentivize personnel to remain on Capitol Hill. “Congress was a rare institution that made almost no investment in the professional development of staff or members of Congress. I’ve never been in an institution – where other than freshmen orientation – there is no training for anything,” he said. Even when he became a committee chair, Kilmer said he received no training.
“One of our recommendations was to establish a staff academy and a member academy to provide training opportunities so people can get better at their jobs.”
Another accomplishment of the “Fix Congress” committee was changing who decides how federal funding is spent in local communities, Kilmer said. For years, Congress deferred to the executive branch. “I am certain I know more about the needs of my district than people who might be terrifically well-intentioned but who are sitting in marble buildings 3,000 miles away from my district.”
Kilmer said this change enabled him to steer federal monies to key projects in Kitsap County, including dealing with flooding issues on Bay Street and its revitalization, and funding portions of the Quincy Square project in Bremerton.
The “Fix Congress” committee did more than talk about improving Congress. It led by example. The assembly used techniques it learned. “We held bipartisan planning retreats at the start of each session, where we got to know each other on a personal basis, discussed priorities, and set the agenda that shaped our committee’s work.” He said the retreats were instrumental in setting a bipartisan tone.
Most committees on Capitol Hill consist of a majority of members from the party in power. In the last Congress, Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate and as a result chaired every committee and included a majority of members on each one. Kilmer’s committee, however, intentionally featured an even split of Democratic and Republican members. Also, the committee had a single staff work with all members regardless of party.
Even the way the select committee conducted meetings was designed to break down party divisions.
During a typical congressional hearing, the chairperson sits in the middle of a long line of lawmakers with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. The seating pattern at Kilmer’s proceedings alternated between Democratic and Republican members. Also, rather than committee members sitting in a long line Modernization members sat at a roundtable. The arrangement was designed to allow members to make eye contact with one another and promote discussion, Kilmer noted.
The Committee on Modernization was formed in 2019 with support of lawmakers on both sides. The group came up with more than 200 recommendations. Originally, the committee was to operate for only a year. But congressional leaders extended its life to four years. And its work drew praise in D.C.
Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “The Select Committee has drawn invaluable insights from every corner of the House community. Guided by the Select Committee’s vision and values, the House has proudly implemented 65 percent of [the committee’s] recommendations – delivering positive, concrete and lasting change.”
Kilmer hopes the work of the group will live on in the newly convened 118th Congress. He expects a subcommittee will be created to turn more recommendations of the “Fix Congress” assembly into reality. Kilmer has his fingers crossed that he will be a member of the subcommittee in addition to remaining on the powerful House Appropriations committee.