The promise of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

The U.S. Capitol is seen during a snow storm on Monday, January 3, 2022. The Washington, D.C., area is forecasted to receive five to six inches of snow before the afternoon.
Greg Nash

In December, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress released its most recent recommendations to the U.S. House of Representatives. These recommendations add to the Select Committee’s recommendations from last Congress, two thirds of which have already been or are nearly implemented. The latest recommendations address staff recruitment, diversity, retention, and compensation; civility and collaboration; congressional support agencies; and evidenced-based policymaking. Based on our collective experience in the House serving as staff for both parties (in both partisan and nonpartisan positions), we applaud these recommendations as constructive steps that will move the House in a productive direction. 

The recent challenges to our democracy posed by increasing political polarization is a problem too vast to assign responsibility to one institution and too daunting to task a select committee with fixing. Yet, with these recommendations, the Select Committee identifies concrete institutional reforms designed to promote constructive give-and-take rather than dysfunctional polarization, thereby facilitating collaboration and compromise.

Restoring opportunities for member-to-member engagement is critical. Today’s political discourse is at a modern historical low point. Political animosity has spilled out into the open between members of opposite parties, and at times even the same party.

Academic research has shown that legislative effectiveness increases in direct proportion to members’ social connections with each other, particularly those of the opposite party. As former staff, we recognize that building bipartisan staff relationships is also important to successful legislating, and the Select Committee has rightly focused on measures to improve these connections.

We commend the Select Committee’s exploration of a searchable intranet portal to facilitate collaboration on legislation and designated bipartisan co-working spaces for staff. 

We agree with the Select Committee that the House can build on its success in improving the new member orientation experience that is bipartisan. We also agree that a key feature of such orientation would focus on the House’s institutional role in lawmaking and the role of the legislative branch in executive oversight. 

While it was not among the specific recommendations, the Select Committee also considered how member and staff travel can build bipartisan relationships. Our experience has shown this to be the case, and bipartisan travel opportunities should be promoted beyond committees to include rank-and-file members and staff, caucuses, and delegations.

Recognizing that the House is—by the framers’ design—a majority body, the recommendations relating to legislation and committee processes are also designed to improve bipartisan activity. We commend the Select Committee for considering measures, for instance, like creating a bicameral, bipartisan task force to discuss rules changes to require reciprocated consideration for widely supported, bipartisan legislation.

On the committee front, we note that, contrary to popular belief, the House is holding a historically low number of hearings compared to the previous 40 years. That has led to five times fewer witnesses being called in today’s Congress than at the witness peak in the late 1970s. One important change recommended by the Select Committee would be to de-conflict committee schedules to allow for member participation in considered and deliberative lawmaking. Committee scheduling is currently left to individual chairs but could be further centralized. This would also increase committee flexibility to host bipartisan events that foster collaboration and further develop working relationships, another Select Committee recommendation.

We are hopeful that the House will implement the Select Committee’s recommendations to expand training opportunities for staff and to increase resources for and improve services at support agencies like the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Congressional Budget Office. Investing in staff professionalism goes beyond training, and we applaud the Select Committee’s and House leadership’s work to increase staff pay. But, as the Select Committee recognizes, there is still a need to increase Member Representational Allowances so that member offices can execute not only staff increases but also other reforms discussed here, such as increases in member and staff training and travel.

The degrading of our political discourse and our often-dysfunctional democratic republic are not something the Select Committee can solve. But the committee has worked in a bipartisan and steadfast manner to address many of the institutional concerns and frustrations that have led to poor legislative results. We believe that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was right to establish the Select Committee in 2019, and we commend her and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for supporting its work again in this Congress.

Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Vice Chairman William Timmons (R-S.C.) are thoughtful legislators. The members of their committee are devoted to the institution and the elevated functioning of the legislative branch as laid down in Article I of the Constitution. 

As former staff, our voice is small, but it is both bipartisan and nonpartisan. We fully support the work of the Select Committee and encourage their recommendations. The future of our government and this country remains bright, as always, and we believe a more highly functional legislative branch will play an important role in its growth.

Jerry Hartz was Senior Advisor and Director of Floor Operations to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Muftiah McCartin was Assistant Parliamentarian in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as professional staff of the House Committee on Appropriations and staff director of the House Committee on Rules. Kyle Nevins was deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and director of floor operations to former House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Thomas J. Wickham, Jr. is the former Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tags Derek Kilmer Eric Cantor Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Roy Blunt William Timmons

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