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Select Committee Makes Final Recommendation on How to Fix Congress

September 25, 2020 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – An 18-month effort to make Congress work better and retain staff more effectively came to an end Thursday, when the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress announced its final list of recommendations.

Created by an overwhelming bipartisan vote at the beginning of the 116th Congress, the Select Committee was tasked to produce recommendations on rules to promote a more modern and efficient Congress.

As of Thursday, its efforts have resulted in 97 recommendations to stem the brain drain among staffers, boost congressional ability to get things done in a bipartisan fashion, and overhaul the budget and appropriations process.

“Through bipartisan collaboration and a commitment to reform, this committee has delivered nearly 100 recommendations to make Congress work better for the American people,” Committee Co-Chairs Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Tom Graves, R-Ga., said in a joint statement.

“[These] recommendations will help the legislative branch reclaim its Article One responsibilities, reform the broken budget and appropriations process, and ensure the people’s House has the capacity to meet the needs of those we serve,” they added.

Though the Select Committee was scheduled to go out of existence after a year, so important did their colleagues judge their objective to be, they were given the go ahead — at the height of the impeachment trial in the Senate — to continue their work through the end of the year.

From the start, the panel was unique in that it was evenly split with six Democrats and six Republicans, who sat interspersed among each other rather than one party’s representatives on one side of the dais and the other party’s on the other side.

On Thursday, the committee approved its final slate of 40 proposals. Its final report is expected in the coming weeks.

Highlights of Thursday’s recommendations are outlined below. The full list of Select Committee recommendations can be seen here.

Reclaiming Article One Responsibilities:

Over the past several decades, Congress’ standing as a co-equal branch of government has softened, while the executive branch has expanded in size and scope of power. Ongoing cuts to the legislative branch hurt congressional capacity, ultimately hurting the American people if Congress is unable to execute at its best.

Recommendations:

  • Creating of a congressional Community Focused Grant Program that harnesses the authority of Congress under Article One of the Constitution to appropriate federal dollars.
  • Encouraging bipartisan oversight, retreats, training and policymaking at the committee level, similar to the way the Select Committee has operated.
  • Increasing capacity for policy staff and congressional support organizations.

Improving the Congressional Schedule and Calendar:

One of the topics the Select Committee heard about the most from members, former members and staff was the need for a more predictable, modern work calendar. Members should spend less time traveling and more time legislating.

Recommendations:

  • Establishing a block calendar system for committee scheduling.
  • Create a common committee calendar portal to help with scheduling and reduce conflicts.
  • Create “committee activity only” work days, similar to how Congress has operated in the last few months.

Reforming the Budget and Appropriations Process:

When it comes to the annual budget and appropriations process, since Fiscal Year 2012 not a single standalone appropriations bill has been signed into law. Since 1977, Congress has only passed all 12 appropriations bills before the end of the Fiscal Year four times.

Recommendations:

  • There should be an annual Fiscal State of the Nation, to better inform our policy making and ensure taxpayers know how their dollars are being spent.
  • Require a biennial budget resolution.
  • Ensure that Congress adheres to a more realistic budget timeline.

Enhancing Congressional Capacity:

The Select Committee has talked with hundreds of congressional staff about ways to improve retention and recruitment on Capitol Hill. The average time staff stay in a position in Congress is two years. Constant turnover hurts the institution and the people it’s designed to serve.

Recommendations:

  • Reevaluate and increase the Members Representational Allowance (MRA) to ensure Congress can meet current and future challenges, like the ongoing pandemic and the importance of retaining top policy staff.
  • Establish a voluntary, nonbinding pay band system.
  • Delink the staff pay cap from member pay.
  • Increase options to health insurance for congressional staff.

The Select Committee unanimously approved its first slate of recommendations in May 2019, focusing on ways to make congressional information more easily accessible to the public.

In July 2019, it issued a second series of recommendations calling for the creation of a centralized human resources hub for staffers. The proposal also called for making the Office of Diversity and Inclusion permanent, updating the staff payroll system to semimonthly and creating a Congressional Leadership Academy to train lawmakers.

In March 2020, the House approved a resolution that included 29 recommendations from the Select Committee, on staff retention and diversity, prioritizing opportunities for bipartisan socializing, and developing a more unified system for personnel management.

As they concluded their work, Kilmer and Graves thanked their fellow committee members “and those who have championed our mission to make the legislative branch more efficient, effective and transparent for all Americans.”

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