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WATCH: The Future of Congressional Reform with Rep. Derek Kilmer

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WATCH: The Future of Congressional Reform with Rep. Derek Kilmer

WATCH: The Future of Congressional Reform with Rep. Derek Kilmer

On November 12, 2020, the Center for Effective Lawmaking was honored to host Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA06) for a public conversation surrounding his work as the Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

(For an analysis of how the Select Committee’s work intersects with research from the Center for Effective Lawmaking, read our article here.)

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress Committee (“Select Committee”) was established by H.Res. 6 on January 4, 2019 and is tasked to investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people. The Select Committee is one of the only truly bipartisan committees in Congress, with an equal number of Republican and Democratic members. Recently, the Committee released its final report, detailing 97 recommendations and findings made during the 116th Congress to make Congress work better for the American people.

As the new 117th Congress commences this January, what institutional reforms should they consider?

Representative Kilmer shared how the Select Committee modeled bipartisan lawmaking, reforms the Committee feels are critical and reforms the nation isn’t yet ready to tackle and the path forward.

Watch the conversation below.

Transcript as follows:

Craig Volden (00:00):

Well, welcome everyone. And thanks so much for joining us here at the Center for Effective Lawmaking at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. By way of introductions, I’m Craig Volden, Professor of Public Policy and Politics here at the Batten School. I’m also the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. I’m delighted to be joined today by Congressman Derek Kilmer. The Congressman grew up in the state of Washington before going to Princeton to pursue a public policy degree from the Wilson School. So for our policy students in the audience, the Congressman represents another excellent example of what one can do with a policy degree. He earned his doctorate from Oxford on a Marshall scholarship and worked as a consultant for McKinsey & Company before taking a further turn toward public service. He was elected to the Washington state legislature, serving in the House and then the Senate from 2005 to 2013. He was elected to Congress in 2012. And it was during his first term as a member of the House of Representatives that he first appeared on the radar screen of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. In that term, he scored on our overall top 10 list of most effective Democratic lawmakers in the House despite only being a freshmen. In the current Congress, Representative Kilmer chairs the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a committee tasked with recommending reforms to make the House of Representatives work better. And last week he was reelected for a fifth term in Congress. Congratulations, Mr. Chairman and welcome.

Representative Kilmer (01:31):

Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Craig Volden (01:34):

The way that we’re going to conduct today’s interview is that I have an endless number of questions myself about the Select Committee. But we’ll be especially pleased also to ask questions on behalf of our live audience, for those of you out in the audience. So if you want to put those in the Q and A box down at the bottom, I’ll be able to integrate those as we go along. Now these questions are in many cases going to be fairly general. But I’m sure we’d all love to hear from you with specific examples from your work on the Select Committee as they come to mind. So just to kick it off, how did the Select Committee come about? Why now?

Representative Kilmer (02:18):

About every few decades or so, Congress realizes that things aren’t working the way they ought to, and they create a select committee to do something about it. And the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was sort of this year’s incarnation of that. If I were to give you a deeper dive into the origin story, a lot of it happened prior to the 116th Congress. When there was discussion around reforms to the House rules package, you had Democrats and Republicans, when it wasn’t clear who the majority was going to be, talking about how we make the institution function better. I’m very conscious as a member of Congress that I’m part of an organization that according to recent polling is less popular than head lice, colonoscopies and the band Nickelback. And we would consistently find things that we wanted to get into the rules package as we had these bipartisan conversations.

Representative Kilmer (03:16):

And then every now and then we would unearth an issue around things like recruitment retention and diversity of staff, or how Congress uses technology or issues around constituent communications, where we would find ourselves saying, ‘well, that’s not really a rules issue.’ And so we kind of put it in a bucket that we said ‘stuff to be dealt with later.’ And we took all of that and a bipartisan group of us said ‘maybe it’s time to do one of those once in a generation committees, again, to deal with all that stuff that doesn’t fit in the rules package.’ And so last year when the House passed its rules, it established this committee and it was established as a bipartisan committee (six Democrats, six Republicans). We were originally given one year to do our work. Then we were extended through the end of the 116th Congress.

Representative Kilmer (04:08):

And our mandate is pretty broad and it incorporated a number of those things that were kind of in the bucket that I just mentioned, stuff that weren’t necessarily House rules issues, and candidly, we also looked at some issues that didn’t, that weren’t part of our mandate, but that we thought were important. Things like civility and continuity of Congress, which is even more important in the midst of a global pandemic. And the common thread here, and I guess this gets at the question of why our work matters, is: how do we make Congress work better for the American people? That was our underlying mission. And I think that’s actually pretty important.

Craig Volden (04:48):

Great. Thanks for that background. As you had mentioned, there’ve been a number of reform committees and reform attempts through the 232 years that Congress has been around. Were you able to learn from those past efforts in terms of how to move forward and how to kind of lay out the problem systematically and think through solutions?

Representative Kilmer (05:12):

Absolutely. And early on we did a session with the Congressional Research Service and we brought them in and had them kind of walk us through the history of these reform efforts. And it’s a pretty mixed bag. And when they, when you hear someone from CRS going through generations worth of Select Committees and referring to “in the successful committee 30 years ago”, and then, “in the failed attempt,” and we were like, “how do we make sure we’re one of the successful ones and not one of the failed ones?” And so there were a few things that we did that I actually thought were useful. One, we actually put our ideas into action. Everything we recommended that committees ought to do to encourage bipartisanship, to encourage collaboration, to encourage productivity, we modeled ourselves.

Representative Kilmer (06:02):

A few examples, one of the things we recommended is functional committees off should, and frankly functional organizations should decide, “Hey, so what’s success look like?” early on. When I was at McKinsey, I never worked with a client who didn’t define success upfront. And so one of the things we recommended was that committees ought to have agenda setting retreats at the beginning to define success and to establish a positive bipartisan approach to working together. We did that. And honestly, we found it wildly helpful. It was really useful to have every member of the Committee express, “Here’s why I’m here. And here’s what I want to get done.” We experimented with some small things, but things that weren’t insignificant, like mixed seatings. If you watch one of our hearings on C-SPAN (and I can tell you they were real ratings grabbers) we didn’t have Democrats sitting on one side of the dias and Republican sitting on the other.

Representative Kilmer (07:04):

We had Democrats and Republicans sitting side by side, and the value of that is you’d be hearing testimony and it enabled you to lean over to the person to your right or to your left and say, “That’s a really interesting idea. What do you think about that?” And it was someone who might have a different perspective than you, but it enabled that kind of bipartisan dialogue and fostered some relationships. Our Vice-Chair was Tom Graves. He and I worked as partners and our committee members did the same. We formed a number of bipartisan working groups. So when we wanted to work on the issue of technology, we kind of spun off a Democrat and a Republican to work on that issue together. We had a group that worked on issues around civility together. I guess the only other thing I’ll mention is our Committee doesn’t have legislative authority, but we, again, in looking at some of the failed, efforts over the years, one of the things we decided to do was where we could find …we passed rolling recommendations.

Representative Kilmer (08:09):

So we didn’t just wait till the end of our deadline and try to pass something. I was, in fact, on a prior Select Committee that took the approach of waiting till the last meeting, trying to get some recommendations passed. And unfortunately the plane sort of flew into the side of the mountain and that committee got zero recommendations passed. You saw that happen with the “super committee” on debt and deficit reduction, same thing, they passed zero recommendations. So what we decided to do was two things: one to figure out where we could find agreement, and we started with some kind of low-hanging fruit, and then we just rolled on them and past recommendations. But then importantly, we decided to turn our recommendations into legislation. Our first set of about 30 recommendations passed the House in March. We’re currently turning our remaining 97, uh, recommendations into legislation. And that – this is really a first for committees like ours. No other reform committee actually turned recommendations into legislation during its tenure, but we thought that was really important. Because our goal was not to produce a report. Our goal was to produce change and to make Congress work better.

Craig Volden (09:20):

Great. There’s a lot to unpack in there, so I’m going to kind of take bits of it. I’m intrigued by the defining success upfront. So our students should know that’s a great way to proceed. But in particular then I could imagine that different folks on the Committee will have different definitions of success. Did you find that it’s kind of a brainstorming exercise where ‘let’s build a broad list of successes,’ or did that expose some, some potential conflicts? How did you think about what came out of that process?

Representative Kilmer (09:53):

I think what was useful is people came to the exercise, not necessarily with the answer, but with issues that they thought were important for our Committee to engage on. So for example, you had .. when we had that initial agenda setting retreat, you had a couple of members say, “You know, what I think is bonkers? I spent more time days traveling, sitting on airplanes and in airports last year than I spent in the United States Capitol,” and which was true. So you had a couple of folks say, “I really want to dig into that issue, issues around scheduling and calendar.” You had some members say, when we went around and said, “When we are done, what do you want to make sure we have worked on?” you had a couple of members say, “I think we’ve had too many government shutdowns. And I want to deal with issues around budget and appropriations.” You had some members say, “Man, Congress has such wild staff turnover. This is a big problem.” And so there were a number of overarching problems that we unearthed during that agenda setting retreat. And when we kind of white boarded them out, the common denominator was all of these things contribute to Congress not working well for the American people. And so what we were able to do upfront is to say, “We all may want to work on different issues, but they’re all under the umbrella of let’s make Congress work better for the American people.” So I kind of joked at the end of that meeting, let you know, let’s all get tattoos that say we’re here to make Congress work better for the American people.

Craig Volden (11:50):

Right. Right. And then the bipartisan approach … you embraced that from the earliest days… Is that just unique to the business of what you were up to, of making Congress work better for the American people, or is kind of bipartisanship something that could work in other committees and other areas of Congress’s work?

Representative Kilmer (12:11):

I think it’s really important. We made a decision upfront. Now, listen, our committee was six Democrats and six Republicans. To pass a recommendation we required a two thirds vote. And so if I wanted to get anything done, we had to work together. But Vice-chair Graves and I made a decision upfront. And one of our decisions was a tectonic shift in terms of how Congress generally functions. When you get a committee established, the committee gets its funding. And what generally happens is you divide the money and the Democrats get their part of the money. They general use their money to hire people who have a Democratic background. They put on blue jerseys. Republicans use their part of the money to hire people with a Republican background. They get hired, they put on their red jerseys and then they spend the rest of the time duking it out.

Representative Kilmer (13:03):

And Tom and I had a discussion early on and said, “What if we don’t do that? What if we just have one non-partisan and unified staff, one budget, one office, and instead of putting on red and blue jerseys, they just, everybody puts on fixed Congress jerseys?” And that was a real break from tradition of Congress. But I actually think it was really, really important. We also decided to have all of our meetings as a full committee. Committee members had their staffs briefed as a group. All of our information sharing was done on a nonpartisan basis. So we weren’t, we kind of weren’t separating our efforts in a partisan way. And that meant that some issues needed extra discussion and needed extra attention because we, again we needed two thirds of the Committee to approve any recommendation that we made. Not everybody, regardless of party, agrees on everything all of the time. But that meant that every recommendation made had the full support of our bipartisan committee, which was a big deal.

Representative Kilmer (14:05):

I guess one of the main takeaways is: I actually think that that that could be instructive for other committees in Congress. But it means everybody has to give a little something up. As a member of the majority party, sort of ceding some of our authority as the majority and sharing in the governance of our Committee, sharing in the agenda setting of our Committee, meant giving something up. But it also meant getting something. And frankly it meant the minority had to give something up, too. What they had to give up is there was an expectation that if they had skin in the game, that there was an expectation that they couldn’t just vote “No.” And that is sometimes the challenge in the Congress right now is if you disempower the minority so much, no wonder they just vote “no” on everything. And I think that the approach of our Committee could be really instructive in terms of how other committees could function better.

Craig Volden (15:08):

Can you give me an example or two of ‘here’s a proposal, it didn’t meet the two thirds threshold, let’s talk it through and revise it’ and kind of build that consensus. How does that work in concrete terms?

Representative Kilmer (15:21):

Well, there were a couple that were hard .. more than a couple. One of the issues that we looked at was just the funding that was provided to congressional member offices. That’s a hot button issue regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on, but we brought in outside experts, we talked to staff, we talked to members and former members, and we knew that one of the most important reforms we could recommend was actually increased investment in the legislative branch. That hard. Right? That’s tricky. And so that took a lot of discussion about, ‘okay, how what’s the best way to do that. And how do we do it in a way that if you’re a conservative Republican, you’re not touching a third rail in terms of asking for Congress and the legislative branch to get more funding?’

Representative Kilmer (16:14):

Part of the way we did that is we grounded it in the constitution. Article One of the constitution sets up the legislative branch as a coequal branch of government. And unfortunately you have seen a complete erosion of its capacity. And so it wasn’t simply seen as some self-serving move to increase congressional capacity. It was seen as a desire for the legislative branch to fulfill its constitutional obligation. Another good example of that is what we call the “Community Focused Grant Program,” which was a framework to re-empower Congress to make decisions about how money gets spent. And none of us wanted to repeat some of the abuses that you saw with earmarks in prior decades. But we also felt it was important from, again, from a constitutional standpoint, to have Congress use the power of the purse that was established for it under the constitution.

Representative Kilmer (17:20):

We worked together with leaders on both sides of the aisle to create something that could be implemented that would be accessible for all members, that would be transparent, that would have protections against abuse, and that would make Congress work better for the American people. And I … those were hard, right? That process, took the better part of a year for us to land on a recommendation that our members were comfortable with and that we could find common ground on. But that’s… being able to provide bipartisan recommendations in that space, I thought was really important.

Craig Volden (17:58):

That’s great. Thanks for that set of examples. And then presumably there were somewhere some subset of the Select Committee who thought this was a wonderful idea, but just couldn’t get consensus all together. How often did you find that happening?

Representative Kilmer (18:17):

There were some issues that weren’t necessarily prescribed in the rule that set up our Committee, but that clearly contribute to dysfunction in Congress. Some of the broader systemic issues like campaign finance issues and partisan gerrymandering. We had a discussion in one of our meetings to say, “Is there any appetite for taking on these issues?” And it was pretty clear early on, we’re just not going to be able to drive consensus on those issues. There were some issues that we were able to make recommendations on that were probably more general than some members wanted to get, issues around schedule and calendar are a good example of that, where we had some members who came in saying, “I know exactly the congressional calendar that I would like to see, and I think we should recommend that.” And we just weren’t able to kind of land the plane on that with the level of specificity.

Representative Kilmer (19:14):

We were able to say, We think Congress should have more days legislating than travel days. And we think that there’s value in having some weeks, for example, where Congress only does committee work. And then some weeks where Congress only is on the floor or is predominantly on the floor, because right now you don’t always see the most optimal use of time. And, I think it was maybe 2018, there were 65 travel days, no, excuse me, 66 travel days and 65 full days in Congress. Which means : one members weren’t there all that much. And we’re spending a lot of time in airports and on airplanes. And then on top of that the Bipartisan Policy Center did a really thoughtful analysis where they looked at the degree to which committee meetings are on top of each other and in part, because if you’re not there enough, the average member I think is on 5.2 committees and subcommittees. And if you’re only there 65 full days, all of those committee meetings are basically scheduled on top of each other. So oftentimes if you’re watching C-SPAN (one: why?) but secondly, if you’re watching C-SPAN and you notice that there’s not that many people who are at their committee meeting, it’s not that they’re blowing off their job. It’s that they’re in three committees at the same time and my clone doesn’t come to work. Right? So we thought it was important to make recommendations in that space. And we did. So we suggested, both in terms of overall trying to have Congress there more often to having a sort of central scheduling system so that committees could at least try to de-conflict some of their committee meetings, we made this recommendation on having Congress have some days that were designated as committee days and some as floor days. Having said that, there were members of the committee who wanted to get far more prescriptive than we were willing to find consensus.

Craig Volden (21:35):

Great. I want to bring in some audience questions. Again, you can ask those in the Q and A box. But this one here is asking kind of about where policy ideas come from or reform ideas. Was there a process for identifying issues other than what members themselves think are important and how did that play out?

Representative Kilmer (21:56):

We had a lot of partners in this exercise. First and foremost, we started off with soliciting ideas from members. We did a member day hearing. We had several dozen members show up and, when you crowdsource in that way, you just started coming up with a laundry list of things that you’re like, ‘well, that, you know, that’d be a good thing for us to take a look at, too.’ We had a former member day hearing and talked to members of Congress who left and tried to unearth, ‘So why did you leave and what were some of the problems that you identified?’ We also leaned on political scientists quite a lot. We had in the rule that established our committee, we had a specific mandate to look at a number of issues, so technology, as an example. Between folks from academia to folks in the kind of reform nonprofit arena, I guess I didn’t fully realize until I became Chair of this Committee, there’s a group that is kind of known as the cohort that I lovingly referred to as the “reform industrial complex,,” but there’s an amazing number of really effective, thoughtful organizations that are really focused on some of the dysfunction in our politics and in the legislative branch in particular.

Representative Kilmer (23:30):

And they were extraordinary partners in saying, “Hey, you know, you’ve been assigned this task, we’ve been doing this work, looking at that issue. Let’s make some … we’d be happy to come and testify.” And that was really quite constructive. I joke about the lack of ratings that we got on CSPAN, our Committee while important was not exactly viral on social media. But it’s kind of a bummer because the reality is, and I would encourage folks who are interested in our work, you should watch some of our hearings. They were really interesting .And I don’t just say that as a policy nerd, I say that as someone who wants to see government work better. And bringing in these experts who would come and talk to us about a variety of issues, it was really instructive and really helped inform the 97 recommendations that we were able to pass with with unanimous support.

Craig Volden (24:30):

I mean, it seems like, having seen many of those, you didn’t get the yelling at each other parts that maybe would give you high ratings and so on … You got the constructive policy wonky work, which is sadly underappreciated.

Representative Kilmer (24:48):

Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that’s right.

Craig Volden (24:53):

But there was also, as one focused on reforms that might’ve been tried in the States. Can you talk a little bit about, was that useful? Does Congress draw some lessons from state legislatures and so on?

Representative Kilmer (25:07):

Yeah, for sure. On a number of fronts. Probably the area that you saw the most, where we dug in the most was after COVID hit, just trying to understand how do functional legislative bodies continue to function even in the midst of a global pandemic? We were able to draw on not just the experience of state legislator, state legislatures, but also across the globe, talking to parliamentary bodies about how they were continuing to work.

Craig Volden (25:42):

I’m always intrigued when we interview members of Congress and they say, “well, I wish it worked the way that it worked back in my state when I was in the state legislature.” Sometimes that doesn’t play out the same way.

Representative Kilmer (25:54):

Yeah. It was kind of a shock to my system, having come from a mostly functional state legislature. And we were able to pull some recommendations again, not to beat the drum on the schedule and calendar issue, but the many of us who came from state legislatures came from systems that had blocked scheduling, as an example. So you had some deconfliction on that front. On some of the other recommendations that we made, dealing with civility and trying to foster more bipartisan collaboration, came again from people’s experiences in state, legislatures. One of the areas where we made a recommendation was, really from day one, when you’re elected to Congress, you’re separated by party. There are parts of orientation that are partisan, and we recommended that that change. This year new member orientation, which is happening as we speak, is non-partisan. That’s a huge win for the House and for those that we serve. I mean, literally you had people say, “I got to Congress and Democrats were put on one bus and Republicans were put on another bus.” We also, many of us from legislative bodies, said ‘there needs to be some space where members can engage one another in a bipartisan way.’ In our member day hearing that was one of the recommendations that came up. Dean Phillips from Minneapolis, from not, not from Minneapolis, from Minnesota, came and testified. He was a business guy and he said, “No 21st century institution would use space the way that Congress does.” And he said, “There should be a space away from press away, from outside groups, away from staff, where Congress members could work together without judgment or without outside influence and just be able to talk.” So we made a recommendation along those lines.

Craig Volden (28:10):

So the newer list, you said 97 recommendations, what’s the status or state of that longer list?

Representative Kilmer (28:20):

So last year we turned 30 of our recommendations into legislative text, that was passed overwhelmingly by the House back in March. And then this, that’s the first time that a select committees like ours turned recommendations into legislative action. So that was a big deal. We’re in the process of turning our remaining recommendations into legislation. We’re working on that right now, and some of it may be in the form of, the prior one was H.R.Res 756, some of them may be kind of a House Resolution. Some of them, some of our recommendation, will require legislation that would pass the House, pass the Senate and get signed by the President. That’s harder. But, for example, we made seven recommendations related to budget and appropriations process reforms, shifting to biennial budgeting as an example, and trying to improve the coordination between the legislative branch and the executive branch in that budget process. That would actually require legislation that passes the House, passes the Senate and get signed by the President.

Representative Kilmer (29:28):

Some of it can be dealt with in the rules package. So, literally earlier, two days ago, I was on a phone call with Chairman McGovern, the Chair of the Rules Committee, saying “Here’s of the recommendations that we made. We think some of these things could be dealt with in the rules package and literally could be wins that get put up on the board on Day One of the 117th Congress.”

Craig Volden (29:57):

So this is a group we’re not expecting those 97 to come together as a single resolution, but those are parceled out in a variety of ways?

Representative Kilmer (30:05):

They may come together predominantly in a resolution, but some of them will take more than just a HRes.

Craig Volden (30:13):

Okay. I want to bring in another audience question. One extremely impressed by all of the work and the consensus of the Select Committee. As you contemplate future iterations of a Select Committee, would you reconsider the rule requiring approval of at least two thirds of the committee to report recommendations? It seems like this will be a limiting factor or a ceiling on some of the more ambitious Article One reform priorities, has that been discussed among colleagues?

Representative Kilmer (30:45):

I think as we look… So let me talk about the two thirds issue and then talk about future iterations. I think there was value in acknowledging upfront that if you’re going to do systemic reform it has to be bipartisan. Because as you may have noticed, there’s not a tremendous amount of trust in the marble buildings in our nation’s Capitol. And there’s a real tendency to view reforms as something that would be seeking to advantage or disadvantage one side or the other. That is murder on a reform process. So you have to have not just the perception, you have to have the reality that this is about institutional improvement, not advantaging one party or the other. Which is not to say that there aren’t issues that I would like to see Congress take on.

Representative Kilmer (31:45):

You know, I’m a proud Democrat. I think our campaign finance system is completely bonkers and I would love to see Congress take on that issue. I’m not sure that that’s something that can get two thirds vote. Congress should still take it up. In fact, the House last year, or two years ago, passed HR 1 the For the People Act. That was not a bipartisan bill though. There has been some discussion about extending the work of the Committee. And I’ll say sort of two things about that. One, I think a functional organization looks at its performance more than once in a blue moon, once in a generation. I think I’m a believer in kind of continual process improvement and so there’s been some discussion around continuing the Committee’s work. Beyond that I think there’s also some recognition that at some point there would be value in having a bicameral conversation because much of the dysfunction that you’ve seen is not unique to the House, but is the House/Senate dynamic. And I don’t know if that’ll happen, but I think at some point it ought to happen.

Craig Volden (33:07):

So here at the Center for Effective Lawmaking we were pleased to see that there was quite a bit of alignment between the recommendations of your Committee and the findings that have been emerging from our research. So I’d like to explore a few areas of overlap along those lines. At the Center we found, for example, that legislators who are more bipartisan, such as those attracting a greater proportion of cross party co-sponsors to their bills, are more effective at moving their proposals forward through the lawmaking process. And of course a number of your reforms are pointing towards bipartisanship as well. Of course at the same time, we’re seeing bipartisanship declining over the past a few decades. As you were diving in, what did you see as kind of some of the causes of that decline in bipartisanship? Maybe over the past two, three decades? And then what specific recommendations might help on that dimension? How much can you chip away at some of those partisan problems?

Representative Kilmer (34:11):

In terms of diagnosing the problem, I think there’s a few things that come into play. One, Congress is more polarized because the American people are more polarized. That’s harder, right? I still remember my first week in Congress in 2013. I mentioned, you go through freshman orientation and then the first week, I was on the Armed Services Committee in my first term in Congress and they had all the freshmen members on Armed Services and on Foreign Affairs go to the Pentagon and meet with the military leadership.

Representative Kilmer (34:53):

And we took a bus back from the Pentagon and it rolled into the Capitol at about seven o’clock at night. And I stood up on the bus, as it rolled in and said, “Hey, I’m going to go grab a burger if anyone wants to come,” in part, because it was my first week on the job and I’m trying to make new friends. And we had three Democrats and three Republicans go up to Good Stuff Burgers on Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re sitting there and just talking, ‘tell me about your race, how did you get in, and what do you want to do?’ And about 45 minutes in I said something along the lines of, ‘it seems like we ought to be able to get some stuff done.’ And the guy sitting across the table from me, it just so happened he was a very conservative Republican from a deep red district. Unfortunately, I can probably tell this story with someone from a deep blue district. It wasn’t, it was a guy from a deep red district. He said, “Derek, I really liked you.” He said, in fact, his parents used to live in my district. He said, “I reached out to my parents after orientation said, ‘you seem to be represented by what seems to what seems to be a pretty good guy.'” And I said, “Well, thank you for that.” And he said, “Now here’s what you don’t understand.” He said, “I won my seat by running against the incumbent Republican. I ran against him as being too compromising, too willing to work with Democrats.” And he said, “I was a applauded for that in my district for that, in fact I beat him because of that.”

Representative Kilmer (36:11):

He said, “The first vote I cast when I got to Congress was a vote against John Boehner for Speaker of the House.” And he said, “And I sent out a press release after that vote that I voted against him because he’s too compromising, too willing to work with Democrats.” And he said, “Here’s what you don’t get.” He said, “I like you, but my constituents didn’t send me here to work with you. They sent me here to stop you.” And I walked out of that burger joint and I called up my wife on my way back to my cheap apartment. And I said, “I’ve got two reactions to this. One, its, incredibly honest and forthcoming. And secondly, Oh my God!” That is a real problem. And that is a problem that is somewhat outside the scope of just our Committee, that gets at everything like, into issues like partisan gerrymandering, and to the state of our discourse. Where, if compromise is viewed as, or working across the aisle is viewed as, toxic with the base of your party, incentives are a bit out of whack right now, politically.

Representative Kilmer (37:23):

There’s a longer discussion to have about what to do about that. But one of the things that we recognized on the Committee was also, you asked about sort of what has caused that decline. One of the things is relationships really matter. The fact that Congress is now really a commuter Congress, and there’s not really much time to form relationships and to foster civility, it’s a lot easier to say terrible things about a colleague if you don’t have a personal relationship with them. You see a lot more of that. And so one of our Committee members, Emanuel Cleaver from Missouri, was really passionate about trying to improve civility and relationships through throughout the legislative branch. And he worked with Susan Brooks, who’s a Republican from Indiana, to develop and to really prioritize a bunch of recommendations aimed at boosting bipartisanship.

Representative Kilmer (38:21):

I mentioned the proposed reforms around orientation. We made the recommendation around finding members space for people to collaborate. The recommendations around congressional schedule and calendar might seem kind of, if you haven’t been in the thick of it, you might find yourself wondering like, ‘why is this Committee even dealing with that?’ Well, here’s the thing: if members spend so much time in airports and on airplanes, rather than legislating and getting to know each other, that does not make Congress work better for the American people. So our hope and my least favorite question that I’ve gotten since I’ve been working on this committee is, “So what’s the one recommendation that’s more important than any o?” There’s no one thing that broke it, right? And I don’t think that there’s a silver bullet. I think it’s more like silver buckshot. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you gotta do to, yield better bipartisan policies and a less toxic environment.

Craig Volden (39:27):

Great. Thanks for that. Our work at the Center has also shown that members of Congress who specialize and gain expertise in a particular policy area tend to be more effective than generalist legislators, kind of who spread their legislative portfolio across many policy areas. And yet at the same time, we’ve seen that specialization and expertise over recent decades decline with a rise in generalists, people who are putting out issues across many, many different policy areas. How does the Select Committee think about policy expertise in Congress and what can be done to promote more expert lawmaking?

Representative Kilmer (40:03):

Well, I mentioned, one issue is that Congress actually needs to invest in itself as an institution. I don’t just mean that in the form of funding, but in the way we learn and encourage members and encourage staff to continue learning on behalf of the folks that we serve. If you look at the trend line, and I really do encourage folks who are watching this, our final report is at modernizecongress.gov (I think, I’ll check that before, we’ll put that up as well) there’s a lot of great data in looking at how Congress has sort of disinvested in itself as an institution and it’s sort of self-lobotomizing. You saw Congress abolish the Office of Technology Assessment, which was focused on how Congress understands technology issues. And it’s no wonder that you then have the Facebook hearings where… that wasn’t a great day, that wasn’t a great look for Congress in terms of its capacity on issues of technology.

Representative Kilmer (41:19):

Congress was established as the first among co-equal branches of government. It’s expected to resolve public problems through legislating, through budgeting, through holding hearings, through conducting oversight. So we looked at congressional capacity in the way that committees are structured and run, we made recommendations that we think would help committees and committee members be more effective in their jobs. And that included recommendations on training, on debate and deliberation because none of us are taught that here in Congress and we learn by doing it and often by example, and sometimes the examples are bad. We also made recommendations to encourage bipartisan evidence-based policy making, similar to how our Committee conducted hearings and meetings over the last two years. We also made recommendations specific to enabling professional development, both of staff and of members of Congress.

Representative Kilmer (42:18):

Congress is unique. It’s the first public setting that I’ve worked in that doesn’t really have any means of professional development for sitting members of Congress. You’re required to take sort of an ethics training. And now, thankfully, and I think it’s a good thing training around treatment of staff and trying to prevent workplace harassment. That’s important. But there are also trainings that I think would be value around just being good at your job, and that doesn’t really happen. And that is different than in the state legislature. So I remember becoming a committee chair in the state legislature, and the first thing I did was reach out to the National Conference of State Legislatures and said, “Do you have anything on best practices for being a good committee chair? Cause I finally got a gavel and I don’t want to stink.” This gives you some sense of how long ago this was .. I think it was 2007…they sent me CDs that I listened to on my drive from home to Olympia on how to be a good committee chair. But it was great! We don’t have that in this environment. And so some of the recommends that recommendations we made were in the spirit of that.

Craig Volden (43:40):

And these support institutions, you mentioned the Office of Technology Assessment, you’ve mentioned CRS, others, how are they working? What could be done to help them?

Representative Kilmer (43:52):

We made recommendations on that front too, to restore the Office of Technology Assessment in a reformed way, but really trying to get at that loss of capacity. It was clear that Congress sort of needs to restore its capacity as an institution, both with those standalone entities like OTA, and CRS, but also within offices, within committees and within offices. The people who work for Congress, both members and staff are, in my observation, dedicated public servants who want to do right by the American people, they work on the Hill because they’re interested in making a difference. They’re certainly not there for the paycheck or for cushy benefits, but I think it’s really hard for people to be fully invested in their work if their work isn’t fully invested in them. Successful institutions, whether you’re talking about businesses or nonprofits or government, they depend on people who are invested in the work that they’re doing and that’s fundamental.

Representative Kilmer (44:58):

Successful institutions invest in themselves. They invest in their employees, they invest in their infrastructure and they invest in the overall work environment and the experience. They plan with an eye towards that. And so we made recommendations along those lines, and again, not one of these is, ‘well, that’s the silver bullet,’ but they matter. So one of the recommendations we made was to offer staff certifications in addition to trainings through … there’s a Congressional Staff Academy, so that you could actually, sort of build up your resume as someone who works in this environment and learn more. We made a recommendation around providing institution-wide some standard onboarding training for new employees, including the required training, but I think probably the most important thing is we made a recommendation to reevaluate the funding formula and increase the funds to each member office.

Representative Kilmer (46:00):

Because what we’ve seen is, the average tenure of a position in a congressional office is two years. And what that means is we’re outgunned as an institution. It means we’re often overly reliant on the executive branch, and as an institution on lobbyists. And I would argue that that does not best serve the interest of the American people. And that’s why you saw Democrats and Republicans support the recommendations that we made around investing in this institution. It wasn’t in a self-serving way. It was a recognition that, grounded in the constitution and in congresses Article One role, we simply have to improve capacity of the legislative branch, or we’re really hosed (that’s a legislative technical term: hosed).

Craig Volden (46:58):

So diving into that idea of supporting staff some more, that also aligns with our research. For example, we had found that freshmen members who hire legislative staff who have lots of experience already on Capitol Hill kind of hit the ground running. They behave more like they’re in their third or fourth term than in their first term. And yet to the number they have to choose from, as you’re suggesting with so much staff turnover, is smaller and smaller. What, in addition to the proposals that you’ve been making there, there are some long serving staff, what did you find kind of motivated them to stay on Capitol Hill and how can we reinforce kind of what they found to be successful?

Representative Kilmer (47:47):

I think those that stay have a sense of efficacy, and so to the extent that Congress can get things done I think that helps us hang on to staff. You mentioned some of the long tenured staff. One of the limitations that we have right now is that staff pay is capped at member pay, and you can understand that. And listen, when we did our member day hearing, we did have some members show up and testify, ‘We want this committee to make a recommendation, to raise pay for members of Congress.’ Our committee did not do that. But we did make a recommendation saying that staff pay should not be capped at member pay because if Congress doesn’t have the will, the desire, the political will, if they don’t want to touch that third rail around member pay, it should not impede the ability to hang on to really talented, in many cases, as you mentioned, long tenured people who at some point are just hitting the ceiling and have no choice, but to go hop to a job, most commonly on K street.

Craig Volden (49:03):

The discussion that we had earlier, about broader reforms, getting the Senate involved, passing legislation that the president would have to sign and so on, what have you found just in discussions of appetite for a similar committee or something on the Senate side?

Representative Kilmer (49:29):

We’ve had a few discussions with folks who are looking at that. I think right now there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the Senate looks like next year. So until that settles a little bit, that’s hard to say. But I think there’s a lot of work to get done in the legislative branch. And we got a lot done over the past couple of years and a lot of the problems that Congress faces they don’t have quick solutions. And so ,I mentioned this earlier, I don’t think this should be a once every few decades exercise. I think this should be a bigger priority for Congress to look at,, how do just get things done just as a matter of course. And my observation is that’s generally what functional organizations do.

Representative Kilmer (50:25):

So we’ll see. I know that there’s a push by many to continue the work of this Committee. I think that its personally, I think that’s a good idea. I know that there were some who have said, maybe there’s a, bicameral opportunity. I think if it’s possible, that would be a good idea. Obviously it takes two to tango and there’s, in the House maybe a couple of years ahead in the process, just because of the work of the Committee in the last couple of years, but I think, and this may sound self-serving, but I think we set a really great example for how members can work productively and with civility across party lines. And that’s no small thing, particularly given how politically tumultuous the past year or so have been. This Committee functioned, one: this committee functioned, and this committee functioned in the midst of impeachment in the midst of a government shut down in the midst of a global pandemic. And I know that’s not leading the evening news, but there have been, and I give you credit, I’m grateful that you’re paying attention to it. There have been people who have paid attention to it. And I think that matters

Craig Volden (51:40):

Well, I think modeling that behavior and showing that it works as an alternative model, seems to be really important.

Representative Kilmer (51:46):

I do, too.

Craig Volden (51:48):

Another question from our audience: Does the election of a president and vice president as two legislators who have long defended legislative prerogatives create any opportunities to affirm Congress’s Article One powers, either on budget or arms control, and so on?

Representative Kilmer (52:09):

I really hope so. My sense is,…so let me sort of separate out first, the president elect and the vice president elect. I think there’s value in doing kind of an after action report on the Trump presidency to look at some of the issues that arose with regard to the erosion of Article One authorities. You saw, for example, the Trump administration on any number of issues on certainly on appropriating, where, despite having not passed funding for a wall out of any appropriations bill, you saw the administration pull money for that purpose. You saw, on trade policy, actions that really usurped the role of the legislative branch. And so I think there’s real value in looking systemically at some of those Article One issues. And again, I’m not saying that in a partisan way, and that’s not meant to be some sort of a shot at the Trump administration. It’s just a statement of reality. They did that. And so I think, even without regard to who Joe Biden is and to who Kamala Harris is, I think there’s value in looking at those issues. I think we’ll find more fertile terrain because of the backgrounds of the president elect and the vice president elect to take on those issues.

Craig Volden (53:44):

Thanks. Our time’s running a bit short, but I wanted to make sure there was time for you to raise anything else, that you’re interested in talking about here and prospects for the future.

Representative Kilmer (53:58):

Well, I guess I’d love to just say, one, thanks for your interest in this. I think it matters, and I really encourage for those who are watching who are students, frankly, we need ya. We need your good ideas, from a public policy standpoint and from the standpoint of coming up with recommendations for effective lawmaking, so that we have legislative bodies that work better for the American people. I guess the other thing I would mention is just keep the faith. I think it’s really easy to watch cable news and quickly get stomach upset, or, if you’re following politics on Twitter, that can be alarming. Early on in the last couple of years, someone gave me a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Representative Kilmer (55:02):

And he said, there’s a difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. It’s a passive virtue. He said, hope is an active virtue. It’s the belief that together we can make things better. He said it doesn’t take courage to have optimism, but it does take courage to have hope. And frankly, when I meet with public policy students, when I meet with those who are actually actively engaged in the process of trying to just make things work better, that gives me hope because it recognizes that we’re not passive observers in this undertaking, that we actually have some say in it. So I encourage you to recognize that one of the cool things about our system of government is you do have a say in it. The only other thing I want to mention is, and I shared this in the final meeting of the Committee…

Representative Kilmer (55:51):

and this wasn’t from me, this was a former HHS secretary, and I can’t remember his name, but he spoke about one of the values of reform and of trying to make things better. And he talked about the importance of being a loving critic, that there are people who are uncritical lovers, who basically think everything’s hunky-dory and are content with the status quo that too often isn’t working for people. And there are also unloving critics who, and you see this in politics a lot, folks who, you can score points by bashing an institution relentlessly, but the notion of being a loving critic is acknowledging that we have to care enough about an institution to fix it. And we have to look at it with a critical enough eye to identify things that aren’t working and things that are, and commit ourselves to making the types of improvements that the American people deserve. So as you engage on this discussion around effective lawmaking and institutional effectiveness, I hope you do so with an eye towards being a critical lover, because you really do need to have both

Craig Volden (57:21):

Happy to be in the, what 9%?, who loved the work of Congress or what it could be. Perhaps that’s a better way to put it?

Representative Kilmer (57:29):

I’m not sure I’m even in the bucket of people who are… I mean, I guess what I’m saying is it’s okay to be critical of the institution. And in fact, if you’re not critical of the institution, given its current function, what’s wrong with you? But you have to care enough about it to want to fix it, not just to treat it like the pinata at the party.

Craig Volden (57:50):

Perfect. Well, we really appreciate the service that you’ve been doing through your committee work, as well as your time here with us today. For those who are interested in continuing to follow this work, go to modernizecongress.house.gov, for the Select Committee work, and go to the lawmakers.org for more on the Center for Effective Lawmaking. Thanks once again.

Representative Kilmer (58:13):

Thank you.

 

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