Written by Taylor J. Swift, senior policy advisor with Demand Progress Education Fund
There was a feeling of serendipity during this week’s final Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hearing, where Members, witnesses, and staff all gathered to discuss the work of the committee and what the future may look like for this work. The Committee — or ModCom — has been working for the past two Congresses to examine ways to make the institution more modern, efficient, and transparent. It favorably reported over 170 recommendations with more on the way. It also recently introduced its second resolution which contains 32 recommendations. The hearing felt like the culmination of everything the committee, its staff, and its stakeholder groups have been working towards.
The question on the table was: where does this modernization work go from here?
Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor was the first committee witness. Her testimony focused how the CAO has implemented several of the ModCom recommendations to strengthen the House, its offices, and its workforce. Whether it’s the creation of the Human Resources Hub, the House Resume Bank, the House Digital Service; the adoption of Quill — an online e-signature platform; and investment in staff training through the CAO Coach program, Szpindor comprehensively outlined how her office has listened to the committee and followed through on its commitments to foster a more modern, transparent, an inclusive workplace. Szpindor mentioned during the discussion portion that the CAO has monthly status meetings with stakeholders and staff regarding implementation tracking. The CAO also uses an internal tracker called ClickUp to keep things organized.
Diane Hill of the Partnership for Public Service was the committee witness representing the Fix Congress Cohort, a group of over four dozen civil society groups and academics that includes Demand Progress. Hill’s testimony centered around providing four different avenues for which the modernization work can continue, including providing a pathway for ModCom’s recommendations to be implemented past the 117th Congress. Hill’s testimony mirrors some of the recommendations that we made for the future of this work. The four options in Hill’s testimony included:
- Establish a new Committee on House Administration subcommittee or commission that focuses on modernization
- Renew the Select Committee on Modernization
- Create a permanent Modernization Task Force, in addition to a Member-based solution
- Pursue a Joint Committee on the Modernization of Congress
Dr. Casey Burgat, assistant professor and legislative affairs program director at George Washington University, was the final witness and focused his testimony on two primary questions: How might current and future Congressional reform researchers measure the effectiveness of ModCom’s work and what common themes come up from ModCom-related proposals that he tasks his students at GW to devise.
To the first question, Dr. Burgat said that some of the committee’s recommendations and resulting progress are quantifiable and can be studied, including measuring impacts of increasing staff pay, diversity, and internship accessibility while others are more difficult to quantify like modernizing technology and improving constituent services. Dr. Burgat mentioned the need for more publicly accessible data so everyone can better track and analyze this kind of work.
To the second question regarding how his students develop common themes around this Congressional work, Dr. Burgat said themes around collaboration and civility, the convoluted budget process, and centralization of power towards leadership were all commonly cited. Congress must take a deeper look into these themes if it wants to strengthen rank-and-file Member participation in the legislative process. Back in September 2021, we made recommendations before the committee on two of these very topics.
A Committee on Administration Subcommittee on Modernization seemed to be the consensus from members. Chair Kilmer supported the idea of creating a subcommittee with an equal number of Rs and Ds so that it can focus on implementing the remaining recommendations after this session. We agree with this assessment and endorsed this idea in our recent letter to the committee.
Kilmer did stress that he has yet to have a full conversation with current CHA Chair Lofgren, who was a member of ModCom last Congress. CHA Ranking Member Rodney Davis also threw his support behind a CHA subcommittee. If the GOP retakes the House in November, Davis would have become CHA chair but he lost his primary to a fellow House member due to redistricting.
CAO Szpindor said that she would support any future entity that allows her support office to work together to champion and codify the recommendations. Kilmer also stressed the need to retain the $10 million Modernization Initiative Account funding that is included in the FY 2023 House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, saying it’s crucial to help implement recommendations in support offices even after this session of Congress.
Scheduling issues, especially committee scheduling, was a big topic of the hearing. Many members, including Reps. Cleaver, Williams, and Davis all had to leave the hearing since they were double booked with other hearings. The committee also held an informal discussion with civil society experts on September 15 — the day after this hearing — to discuss ways to reform the congressional calendar and committee scheduling. Reforming the scheduling and calendar has been Vice Chair Timmons’ biggest pet project on the committee, and he reassured his colleagues that the committee plans to include some scheduling reforms in its final batch of recommendations at the end of the session.
Including reforms in the House Rules package was also a big point of discussion. Rep. Phillips mentioned that the work of this committee should be considered the most important work in Congress because not having a strong Legislative branch is a national security risk. He also said that the committee should make a series of recommendations for the upcoming House Rules package to help embed modernization work into the culture of the institution. Dr. Burgat mentioned the critical need for incentivizing Member buy-in for the legislative process and fostering greater bipartisan oversight, and that this can often be accomplished through the House Rules package at the beginning of each Congress.
There is still much work to be done to modernize and strengthen Congress despite the indication from members that the committee is sunsetting at the end of the session, including dozens of unimplemented recommendations and several outstanding “big picture questions” related to Congress and its operations. Chair Kilmer mentioned the idea of starting a Fix Congress Caucus, but stressed that it would need significant buy-in at the Member- and staff-level, and would require its own staff and resources to be successful. Vice Chair Timmons made a point to tell his colleagues and the witnesses that he will work to help implement every single ModCom recommendation while he is in Congress.
Whatever form this work takes at the congressional level next Congress, we believe there needs to be an emphasis on the following items:
- Addressing a long-term solution to insulate the Legislative branch budget from wavering funding, including automatic budget adjustments and strengthening committee funding levels.
- Strengthening rank-and-file Member power in the legislative process by instituting automatic thresholds that guarantee subsequent actions, like a markup within committee or a vote on the floor.
- Providing more resources to foster professional development and management for Legislative branch employees, including oversight training.
The next three and half months of the 117th may determine what happens to this committee and its work. To this end, Demand Progress will do whatever it can to make sure this type of work continues in the 118th Congress and beyond. ModCom plans to have its final recommendations markup on September 29, 2022.