Legislation & policy analysis

Fix Congress! What happened at the first hearing to modernize Congress

  • William Gray

Earlier this week, the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (or modernizing committee for short) held its first public hearing that solicited testimony from sitting members of Congress.

Committee Chair Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Vice Chair Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), and other members of the committee heard proposals from 35 of their Republican and Democratic House colleagues about how to improve the functioning of Congress.

For background: The modernizing committee was created as part of an overwhelmingly bipartisan rules package at the beginning of the 116th Congress. It’s the first such select committee to focus on fixing Congress since the early 1990s. It is comprised of 12 members of Congress — six Republicans and six Democrats — appointed by the speaker and minority leader, two each of whom came from the House Administration and Rules committees, as well as two freshman lawmakers. It has one year to “investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress” which then must be approved by two-thirds of its members.

Here are six noteworthy moments from the hearing – but it is worth watching in full:

  • Leadership testified. It is noteworthy that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) all testified before the committee with ideas about how to make Congress more responsive to the needs of the American people. It is another important step in House leadership blessing the committee’s work.
  • Congress needs more resources — and knows it. Republicans and Democrats both raised the issue of increasing the diversity, pay, and benefits of staff on Capitol Hill, including an updated paid internship program.They also highlighted the need to retain staff and slow the revolving door to K street.
  • Rank-and-file in Congress want the body to support cross-party work. Whether its at freshman orientation or actually creating new physical spaces, lawmakers including Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) emphasized improving how members of Congress interact with one another, particularly in such a divisive time. Recommendations included updating the legislative calendar or reducing the amount of time spent away from Washington.
  • Bipartisan appetite to address dialing for dollars. For the past few years, Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) and other members have raised the issue of how “party dues” in Congress impact committee assignments. Buck spent his time before the committee imploring them to remove “fundraising prowess” as a determining factor for serving on the most important committees in the House. (Read Issue One’s reports on the “Price of Power” here and here.)
  • Earmarks were discussed. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has previously called for a return of congressionally-directed spending, or earmarks, coupled with full disclosure of requested projects. He did so again on Monday. “I believe they can be great instruments of good when done in a way that is fully transparent and accountable.”
  • The modernizing committee should think big and small. Members testifying before the committee touched on a wide range of issues — from increasing cybersecurity training, capacity, and updating the budgeting and appropriations process, to reclaiming its power as the first branch of government once again. But one thing was clear: there is bipartisan hunger to fix Congress and the modernizing committee needs to think bigger than wires and WiFi.

For more, read the testimony from members before the modernizing committee.

For future updates, follow Issue One and the Modernizing Committee on Twitter.