House must take the first step to modernize how Congress works

Stefani Reynolds

House Democrats soon will meet to plan for the new session of Congress that starts in January. There are many decisions to be made like who will be the Speaker of the House and who will serve in the other roles. House Democrats will also scrum over who gets what chairman seats as well as whether to change any of the legislative procedures or other rules. It will be contentious for sure, as these biannual gatherings always are.

One matter all House Democrats can support is the reauthorization of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which ceases at the end of this year. This is a no brainer on both the merits and politics. House Democrats established it when their caucus met in late 2018 and started it with a resolution shortly afterward early in the next year.

The reasons for doing so were simple. Many legislators thought Congress desperately needed an upgrade for the 21st century. New members were shocked and outraged by the outdated and inefficient ways of the House that make it hard for them to work for the constituencies. Representative William Timmons, for instance, was completely stunned when he arrived on Capitol Hill two years ago and was handed a pager.

The resolution gave the Modernization Committee, as many term it, a list of items to do. It was to study and create recommendations for “rules to promote a more modern and efficient Congress, procedures including a schedule and calendar, policies to develop the next generation of leaders, staff recruitment, diversity, retention, benefits, and compensation” as well as “administrative efficiencies including purchasing, travel, services, and shared administrative staff, technology and innovation” and more.

For the last two years, the Modernization Committee has pursued its work diligently. It held more than a dozen hearings and six virtual discussions. It listened to the complaints and advice of analysts and the private sector. It issued a final report last month with almost 100 recommendations. These reforms would improve the critical communications between legislators and the public, upgrade the clunky technology that legislators and staff use, repair the broken budget process, and better train legislators and staff to govern, among other suggested improvements.

The Modernization Committee ran in a manner that serves as a model in Congress. It was a rare place where the public could watch legislators work in a bipartisan fashion free from drama and gaslighting. Its leaders, Representative Derek Kilmer and the recently retired Representative Tom Graves, operated as equals. The six Democrats and six Republicans on it selected the topics of hearings, and worked to achieve unanimity for all the recommendations that were issued in the final report.

Congress is not yet fixed. The recommendations from the Modernization Committee are just that. They are recommendations. The work of turning them into action remains to be done. There are also an enormous number of anachronisms and inefficiencies that the panel has not had the chance to study. This is why the Modernization Committee should be reauthorized to continue its work in the new session of Congress. The Democrats could even propose making it permanent for better results.

The optics of ending the Modernization Committee are terrible. Voters are down on Congress, and less than 20 percent of the public approves of the job it is doing. The last thing they want to hear from House Democrats is a narrative that will just amount to, “We are not interested in trying to make Congress better.” So getting rid of it would also send a signal that House Democrats are not interested in bipartisan achievements.

Allowing the Modernization Committee to move forward on reform gives legislators one thing to boast about to their constituents back home. Each and every time another reform is enacted and another recommendation in improvements gets made, legislators facing an election will certainly have more achievements to boast about. The right choice is obvious. Here is to hoping that House Democrats make it for the new session.

Kevin Kosar is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

Tags Congress Democrats Government House Politics Technology Washington

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