Kilmer roundtable: Working to modernize Congress for the 21st century

Congressman says select committee making strides to achieve bipartisanship

PORT ORCHARD — U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing the 6th Congressional District in Congress, sat down Aug. 20 for a roundtable discussion with reporters from the Port Orchard Independent and Kitsap Daily News on issues of local and regional importance, including his work as chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

The select committee’s mission, he said, is to make Congress more accessible to the American people and to strengthen the institution by better equipping staff members to handle the increasingly complex duties they are asked to perform.

Here is a condensed summary of Kilmer’s answers to questions from reporters, edited for clarity and brevity:

Tell us the purpose of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, of which you chair.

Kilmer: About every 20 or 30 years, Congress realizes things aren’t working the way they ought to and they create a committee to do something about it. It’s an interesting committee in that its mission is to make Congress work better for the American people. We were assigned a number of topics to look at, including how to recruit, retain and build a more diverse staff.

There’s massive turnover in congressional staffing, and that’s a problem for the public because you’ve seen the erosion of institutional capacity to solve tough problems. In the absence of that internal capacity, what fills that void is lobbyists, and that doesn’t serve the interests of the American public. We’ve been asked to look into how Congress uses technology. Congress has been described as an 18th-century institution using 20th-century technology to solve 21st-century problems. I think that’s a pretty apt description.

We’re looking at issues like constituent communications, administrative efficiencies, and rules and procedures. We’re also looking at how members of Congress can do a better job at collaboration and stability.

How is the committee different from the others in Congress?

Kilmer: It’s a little different in that it’s truly bipartisan with six Democrats and six Republicans. The rules require a supermajority vote to pass any recommendation.

If you look at the history of these select committees, it’s not great. In recent history, there hasn’t been a select committee that has had much success at all. A few years back, there was a select committee that focused on budget and appropriations process reform. It passed zero recommendations. In the last Congress, we passed 97 recommendations. And we’ve just passed another 20, including restoring the ability of the members of Congress to direct community project funding. That was one of our recommendations.

What areas of dysfunction loom as the greatest issue for Congress?

Kilmer: One of the greatest areas of dysfunction we’ve seen are these government shutdowns and can-kicking related to budgeting, which is really problematic. So we’ve made recommendations on how to fix that process. One of those recommendations has been how to fix that process. Another involves issues like staffing and technology, and we’ve also made some recommendations around civility and collaboration. It’s probably the area that’s most broken.

Some of the recommendations, if I shared them with you, you’d say, ‘Well, that’s a no-brainer.’ It’s very weird to be part of an organization that, according to recent polls, is less popular than head lice, colonoscopies and the rock band Nickelback. I’ve reached out to political scientists, organizational psychologists, business consultants and sports coaches. I spoke to a sports coach who said, ‘When you want to fix culture, the most important thing you can do is to look at how you orient new members of the team.’

And [the coach] said, ‘How does Congress do new member orientation?’ [What Congress does] is literally have new members get on a bus based on the party they belong to. From the first minute, you are segregated into a team. Much of that process is in separating Democrats from Republicans. One of our recommendations that passed is to stop doing that and not have that as part of the orientation process.

One of our recommendations was that at the beginning of Congress, have committees do bipartisan planning. I never have been part of an orientation that was successful that didn’t ask at the beginning: ‘What do we want to get done?’ Yet that really doesn’t happen in Congress. But we actually did that with our committee. We had a bipartisan planning retreat. If you went to it, I don’t think you would have known who were the Democrats or Republicans.

I think one of the reasons why my committee has had some success is that if you feel like things need to work differently, then [you need to] do things differently.