As a fresh Democratic majority begins to set policy and priorities for the House of Representatives, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., will chair a new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Kilmer sat down with Federal Times Associate Editor Jessie Bur to talk about how the committee will work to bring Congress into the 21st century.
For those who don’t know, what is the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and what’s its purpose?
ABOUT EVERY 20 OR 30 years or so, Congress does this, where — usually out of an acknowledgment that things aren’t working quite the way they ought to — it establishes a committee to look at what is working, what is not working, and how to make the institution function better.
Some have had a very broad jurisdiction, some have had very targeted — this one in the [House rules package] had established some things that the committee must look at. Those things include looking at the rules of the House and the procedures within the House, the recruitment, retention and diversity of staff, leadership development — even things like shared services.
I think that’s very healthy — it’s healthy for an organization to do that type of self-evaluation periodically — and I think every time you see a bill passed without ever having a hearing, that’s written behind closed doors, it diminishes public faith in the institution.
We’re at a point right now that, according to recent polling, Congress is less popular than head lice and colonoscopies. I think we’re just ahead of Nickelback. So, we’ve got a lot of room for improvement. And I think it’s healthy that we’ve been tasked with this, and I’m hopeful of that.
Why do you think House leadership decided that now is the time that you needed this committee?
TO THE CREDIT OF the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] and [Rules Committee] Chairman James McGovern, this is something that they’ve been looking at, and I would say that the rules package that was passed tried to make some reforms that enable a more open process, a more transparent process, and I give the Speaker and Chairman McGovern a lot of credit for that. We were starting to have conversations about it at the end of 2018.
Are there unique considerations for a committee that’s essentially examining its own body?
ONE OF THE UNIQUE things about this, is unlike all the standing committees, the membership is different in two respects. One, it’s an equal number of Democrats and Republicans — which I think is also a healthy thing. If you’re going to look at any sort of institutional modernization, there must be buy-in from both sides of the aisle. So, I don’t look at that as an onerous burden for the committee; I think it’s probably a good and healthy dynamic for the committee.
The rules stipulated that we must have a member from the Rules Committee, a member from the House Admin Committee, and a freshman on each side of the aisle. I think that’s a pretty smart thing, too, and that some of these issues — when you’re talking about recruitment, retention and diversity of staff — that’s already something that Chairwoman [Zoe] Lofgren has said is going to be a priority for the House Admin Committee. Some of the technology issues are absolutely on the radar screen in the House Admin Committee. The Rules Committee has already, in the rules package this year, taken up issues around how to make the process function better, work more collaboratively, more transparently. So, having some overlap with those committees, I think, is a good and thoughtful approach.
As chairman, what will some of your priority topics are going to be? What are you most excited to investigate?
A LOT WAS DONE in the rules package that started at the beginning of the year. But I think there are some opportunities to further look at that. And, beyond that, as I talk with members, there’s absolute interest in looking at further modernization of ethics rules to make sure that we’re holding the legislative branch to a higher standard.
The technology piece, I think, is really interesting. I think there’s a lot of opportunity on that front, in many respects. Certainly, from the standpoint of defense, cybersecurity is somewhere the institution probably has some opportunities for improvement.
Beyond that, looking at technology as a tool for better engaging our constituents, looking at how each office uses technology. That’s kind of an interesting subject area, in part because right now you have, in essence, 435 independent contractors in the House that have some broad parameters around what is and isn’t supported by the institution, and what they can and can’t do. But it means we’re not always really on the cutting edge of innovation. My colleague Cathy McMorris Rodgers, from Washington state, had a great line where she said, “We are a 19th-century institution using 20th-century technology to solve 21st-century problems.”
It’s a great line and I think it’s pretty on point. There’s quite a bit of potential there.
The staffing conversation is an interesting one, too. There’s a ton of turnover both in committees and member offices. I think it’s hard to have an equal branch, if we’re participating with one hand tied behind our backs, and the committee and member office staff are really quite important to the process, and so that’s going to be an area that we look at: How do you do a better job of recruiting and retaining, and having a more diverse staff, so that the staff better reflects the diversity of our country?
Is there anything about this committee that the general American public may not understand, that you think is important for them to know?
WELL, I THINK THE American people don’t yet know it exists. One of the things that we’re talking about, though, is having means of empowering the public to weigh in with their ideas.
We’re not the only longstanding legislative body. So, one of the things we’re going to look to is, “Who’s doing this better?” looking at state legislatures and other governmental entities along this various metrics that we’ve been tasked with reviewing.
Beyond that, organizational effectiveness is organizational effectiveness. My sense is the American people would have ideas around many of these issues and one of the things we have discussed is having some means of engaging the American public on some of these ideas. It’s still early going, but we’re trying to think through what the means are to engage the public.
When you are holding hearings, since this is about Congress, what kind of witnesses are you going to call?
I DON’T HAVE A vice chair yet, a Republican counterpart yet. So, I want to not presuppose all of this. But just the way I’ve been thinking about it in my head is, I think there’s an opportunity to get insights from the people who work here, right? Sometimes, the people who have the most insights and the greatest criticisms are people who have proximity to the problem.
Beyond that, there are going to be content experts on every one of the things that we’ve talked about. Congress is not the first institution to grapple with recruitment, retention and diversity of staff. And, so, leaning on some best practice organizations to provide some insights there, I think could be quite valuable.
As chairman, if you’re imagining looking back two years later, at the end of this Congress, what would you see at a metric of success of this committee?
I’D LIKE TO SEE us with a more functional and equal branch, that is better attuned to addressing the challenges our country faces and the needs of our constituents. In terms of disaggregating that, ideally with processes that are more open and transparent and collaborative, with technologies that better engage constituents with a more diverse workforce that better reflects the diversity of our country. There are a bunch of things to unravel in that, but a more functional body that better addresses challenges facing our country and the needs of the American people, we’ve got a lot of room for improvement on that front.
Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.