U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing Kitsap’s 6th Congressional District, heads up one of Congress’s most usual committees — the U.S. House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. (Mike De Felice | Kitsap News Group)

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing Kitsap’s 6th Congressional District, heads up one of Congress’s most usual committees — the U.S. House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. (Mike De Felice | Kitsap News Group)

Modernizing Congress is select committee’s improbable mission

Are legislative bodies irretrievably broken? Kilmer’s committee seeks to repair the damage

  • By Mike De Felice Kitsap News Group
  • Wednesday, May 25, 2022 9:56am
  • News

Kitsap News Group reporter Mike De Felice traveled to Washington, D.C. recently to spend a week with U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, who represents Kitsap County’s 6th Congressional District. The visit was an opportunity to view firsthand the daily routine the five-term Democrat follows in his work in the nation’s capital.

The opening installment of the three-part series covered a “day in the life” of Kilmer, recapping his activities from the moment he woke up, taking on a schedule of daily meetings with constituent groups, voting on the House floor and finishing the evening with Zoom calls with district constituents. The final installment will look at Kilmer’s involvement on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which determines how the federal government spends much of its money.

This article examines Kilmer’s work on the “Fix Congress” committee.

By Mike De Felice

Kitsap News Group

PORT ORCHARD — Many Americans are fed up with politicians in Washington D.C., and feel lawmakers spend too much time tweeting shots at each other rather than working on legislation to help the country.

The national polls bear that out: Congress’s approval rating was pegged at a dismal 18 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

A wisecrack making the rounds captures how many folks feel about the legislators on Capitol Hill: “Did you hear about the hurricane that went through Washington, D.C. today? It caused $100 billion worth of improvements.”

There’s a group of congressional lawmakers, however, who are quietly trying to make changes to that equation.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing Kitsap’s 6th Congressional District, heads up one of Congress’s most usual committees. The U.S. House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been given the unenviable task of trying to make Congress run better. Kilmer prefers to refer to the group, which he chairs, as the “Fix Congress” committee.

“When we say we have a committee that’s trying to fix Congress, people generally will either giggle a little bit or offer to pray for us,” the 48-year-old Kilmer said with a laugh.

It seems the only thing conservatives and liberals can agree on is that Congress is broken, but Kilmer and his committee are trying their best to reconcile the seemingly irretrievably broken marriage between Democrats and Republicans.

The committee’s mission is to come up with recommendations for ways to improve Congress and help lawmakers and their staff to better serve the American people.

Here is a look at some of the committee’s recommendations:

Improving civility and collaboration: The inability of Democrats and Republicans in Washington D.C., to work together is what many Americans believe is most in need of repair.

“The reason [the committee] looked at issues related to civility and collaboration was driven by the fact that a lot of the challenges that bedevil this institution aren’t because of rules. It is because of the norms and culture that exists,” Kilmer said.

While serving in the Washington State Legislature between 2005 and 2012 — first in the House and then the Senate — Kilmer recalled that members of both parties were able to work together. The number of times an Evergreen State politician would tie up debate solely to “make political hay” was far less than on Capitol Hill, the Gig Harbor congressman said.

“The amount of time that is consumed by political ‘bull’ is significantly different [in Washington, D.C.] during floor debate to score political points or make a political statement rather than to make a law.”

The state Legislature’s ability to function and solve problems was not because there was a rule that said, “Don’t be a jerk,” but because a culture existed in Olympia that enabled folks to get along, he said.

One of the first steps the Modernization Committee took when it started was to seek input from others.

The committee reached out to experts in organizational psychology, conflict resolution, strategic negotiations and cultural change. Members talked to consultants and coaches tasked with turning losing teams into winning ones, Kilmer said.

“Our goal was to learn from people with deep experience in working through various forms of dysfunction,” he said.

“Fix Congress” committee members understood they were dealing with politicians who came to Washington, D.C. with strong positions. The reform committee’s goal was not to change anyone’s political beliefs but rather tweak some of the systems that steer members toward conflict rather than consensus, he said.

For example, the bipartisan group recommended that Congress change the orientation process new members go through when they arrive.

“One of the problems was [new lawmakers] were basically divided from the beginning. You have members literally being told, ‘Hey, Democrats, get on this bus. Republicans, get on that bus.’”

So, one recommendation was to simply stop doing that, Kilmer said. The committee also recommended lawmakers from both sides of the aisle go on a retreat together to talk about goal setting.

“I have never been part of an organization, until I got to Congress, that didn’t define what they want to get done. There is no bipartisan conversation around goal setting as an institution.”

The recommendation for a bipartisan retreat was adopted and is on its way to being implemented, he reported. The committee also recommended that during orientation, novice lawmakers attend a program focused on civility and collaboration.

.

“Interestingly enough, that recommendation came from interviewing a sports coach who said, ‘We set the culture by how we onboard new players. We talk about how we can work collaboratively as a team.’”

To promote collaboration, the modernization group also recommended that space be set aside near the House floor where a Democrat and a Republican can sit and chat.

“Right now, other than on the house floor, there is not bipartisan space within the institution for a Democrat and a Republican to actually talk to each other. So, one recommendation was, ‘Hey, find some space where if someone wants to have a bipartisan discussion, they can.’”

Staffing matters. What helps keeps Congress moving are the staff members who labor in the offices of the representatives and senators. These individuals contribute to issues research, which can influence the legislation a member of Congress may introduce, and even how the lawmaker votes on a bill.

Keeping congressional staff in place has been difficult and has contributed to the disorder in Congress. There has an enormous turnover, Kilmer reported.

“The downside of this is you see people who have developed sharp brains on complex topics leave. This makes it harder to solve big problems for the American people,” he added.

For years, staff members have been unable to earn more than the lawmaker they work for, Kilmer noted. For example, Kilmer’s annual salary is $174,000, the most anyone on his staff could earn. It should be noted that the pay for members of Congress has been frozen since 2009.

This salary cap meant a highly skilled chief of staff who has been a veteran around Capitol Hill would quickly reach the top of the allowable pay scale, Kilmer said.

“The main reason people leave the Hill and go make more money on ‘K Street’ is compensation. They get a corporate job or lobby for an organization,” he explained. “At some point, they are like, ‘Well, just because Congress isn’t giving itself a cost-of-living adjustment, I can’t get one?’”

To solve D.C.’s “brain drain” and help retain knowledgeable personnel, the committee recommended — and eventually arranged for — staff pay to no longer be limited to what their boss earns.

Scheduling can lead to chaos. The Modernization group is working to reduce the chaos from lawmakers’ schedules, which often call for members to be in several meetings at the same time.

“If Congress is going to get its head around hard problems, usually that learning happens in committee [hearings]. That’s nearly impossible if you are in three committees at the same time. What ends up happening is members pinball from committee to committee.”

The “fix it” committee has asked Congress to use new technology to schedule committee meetings so that fewer of them are held at the same time.

“High schools and colleges around the country have used technology to deconflict calendars. When you sign up for classes, [they] are not all meeting at the same time. Congress has not used technology to deconflict hearings,” he said.

“If you watched the Facebook hearings, there was a sense [that a lot of] members of Congress don’t know what they are talking about in terms of technology,” Kilmer said. “Members of Congress on not whizbang tech geeks.”

Being a role model

The Modernization Committee practices what it preaches, Kilmer said, noting the ways it is designed to promote cooperation. Unlike other committees where Democrats and Republicans each hire their own staff, members of the “Fix Congress” group agreed to hire just a single staff.

Congressional committees are normally made up of a majority of members from the party in power. Currently, the Democrats hold power in the House and Senate. The Fix Congress group, however, is made up of an even split of six Democrats and six Republicans.

The way committee members conduct hearings is also unique.

“Successful meetings don’t say we are going to have one set of people who think one way sit on one side of the room and folks who believe in another set of things sit on the other side. In our committee, we stagger our seating so that everybody is sitting next to someone from a different party,” he explained.

The committee also holds its meetings seated around a roundtable that allows members to face each other and have conversations, Kilmer explained. Typical House committees, as seen in televised meetings, are conducted with representatives seated in long rows on a dais and facing witnesses. (The day a Kitsap Daily News reporter attended a Modernization meeting, due to technical issues with microphones not working, the session was held with members seated at a dais).

Select committees like the Modernization group are created to examine particular problems. Historically, special committees have failed to get much done, Kilmer noted. Dating back to the early ’90s, the select committee on budget reform and the select committee formed to help Congress get a grip on the debt and deficit reduction failed to pass any recommendations.

The “Fix Congress” committee, however, has passed more than 140 recommendations. Over two-thirds of them have either been implemented or are on the pathway to implementation, Kilmer said.

Kilmer has chaired the committee since its inception four years ago. Each member was appointed by their party’s leader — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the Democrats and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for the Republicans.

Media coverage lacking

Interestingly, as relevant as the mission of Kilmer’s select committee may seem in these toxic times of partisan politics, the select committee has failed to attract much media coverage outside of C-SPAN.

Derek reported he has been booked on cable news 10 times to talk about the “Fix Congress” committee and every appearance has been canceled. “I guess it’s sexier to cover people yelling at each other than to cover people working together to get things done,” he said.

The select committee’s future

The Modernization committee, formed in 2019 with bipartisan approval, was originally slated to last one year. Congressional leaders, however, believed the committee was making progress, so its lifespan was extended a number of times. The group is currently in its fourth year and is set to disband at the end of the year.

Following the mid-term elections, the fate of the reform group will be decided by whatever party becomes the majority in the House.

Asked if the Republicans taking control due to the mid-term elections could mean the demise of the “Fix Congress” committee, Kilmer said, “I actually don’t know. The good news is, throughout this process, the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties has been really on board with the work we are doing.

“Everybody wants this. Listen, there are people that want to burn down Congress, but I think [generally] the people here want to improve the institution.”

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