Select Committee Works to Make Congress Better for Staff, Members and the American People

August 2, 2021 by Dan McCue
Select Committee Works to Make Congress Better for Staff, Members and the American People
Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and William Timmons, R-S.C., chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, in Kilmer’s Rayburn building office. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Retaining staff on Capitol Hill has never been easy, but it’s likely never been harder than it is today against a backdrop of often divisive and toxic politics, the spiralling costs of living in the region, and in the wake of the worst siege of the U.S. Capitol building since the War of 1812.

Nevertheless, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, has been working for months to devise a strategy to retain experienced staffers on the Hill and provide them with the tools necessary to succeed in their roles.

The core belief of the committee as it moved forward with this effort, was that if it could solve the staff retention problem — promoting staff diversity in the process — it would strengthen member offices, help committees function more efficiently, and ultimately help Congress reclaim its full Article I responsibilities — revitalizing the institution in the process.

On Thursday, after several weeks of hearings, the Committee unveiled its first tranche of recommendations for the 117th Congress. Those recommendations can be found here.

The following morning, The Well News visited with Select Committee Chair Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Vice Chair William Timmons, R-S.C., in Kilmer’s Rayburn building office to discuss what the committee has been up to and what lies ahead.

To those who either don’t remember or don’t know the back history of the committee, a short recap:

The Select Committee was established on Jan. 4, 2019, and was 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. 

From the start, it was unique. It is one of the only truly bipartisan committees in Congress, with an equal number of Republican and Democratic members, appointed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

In the 116th Congress, the Committee was helmed by Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves, R-Ga., who retired from Congress last year. That led to the elevation of Timmons to vice chair role.

In addition to its leaders, the committee is composed of two members each drawn from the House Rules Committee, the House Administration Committee, and the congressional freshman class.

Although the Select Committee was originally set to expire in February 2020, the House voted on November 14, 2019 to extend its work to the end of the 116th Congress. 

Then, on Jan. 4, 2021, the House adopted the Rules of the 117th Congress, officially reauthorizing the Select Committee to continue its mission to the end of the current Congress.

TWN: I guess a good place to start is with the end of the 116th Congress, when the committee released a large number of recommendations right before Halloween, about a month before you learned you were coming back for the entirety of the current Congress …

Derek Kilmer: We kind of ran through the tape. Our take was, let’s get as much done as we can all under the mission of making Congress work better for the American people. And if we get extended, great. I mean, the entire final chapter of our final report to the 116th Congress was “Here’s a bunch of really important stuff that we didn’t get to” … so there was a pretty clear work plan for the 117th Congress if we were extended. But I don’t know that anybody was banking on that.

Reps. Derek Kilmer and Select Committee Member Rodney Davis, R-Ill., take a break during a recent hearing. (Photo courtesy Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress)

I was actually pretty heartened at the end of last year when we saw civil society groups and good government groups, people from outside the government, saying “Hey, we like the work this committee has done, and we’d like to see it continue.”

And you also saw nearly all of last year’s freshman class [of lawmakers] send a letter to the House leadership saying, “Hey, this committee is doing good stuff and we want to see that work continue.”

I think that was a strong indication both of the progress we had been making and the recognition that Congress is a fixer upper and there’s more work to be done.

TWN: Okay, so the final report to the 116th Congress was 295 pages and contained 97 recommendations. It was released two weeks before the 2020 election and the start of a tumultuous time capped by a siege on the Capitol. What follow up was there to the work you, meaning the committee, produced?

Derek Kilmer: One thing we committed to as a committee was that we didn’t want to just make recommendations; we want to change the institution. So as a consequence, and unlike a lot of other select committees, we’re turning our recommendations into legislation.

About 30 of those pieces of legislation were taken up as a House resolution in the Congress and passed. So that third, roughly, is all in some form of implementation.

There were other things that we recommended that were incorporated in the rules package for the 117th Congress. For example, the majority of recommendations we made in regard to restoring the Article One authorities for members of Congress to directing funding to projects in their districts were taken up by the House Appropriations Committee in the spirit of … if that authority was going to be restored, it be done in such a way as to be transparent and efficient for taxpayers.

We’ve also seen the legislative branch appropriations bill that just passed include a couple of million dollars for implementation of some of the modernization reforms. So things are moving. As we look at our work plan for this Congress, some of it is … passing additional recommendations, and some of it is making sure that what we’ve passed gets implemented.

TWN: As we’ve been talking about this, it occurs to me that the average man or woman on the street might not understand your … for want of a better word … jurisdiction. So for their benefit, do the things you do apply only to the House? Or to the Senate as well? I mean, you mentioned turning recommendations into legislation. Does the Senate have to get involved in that at some point? 

William Timmons: A lot of it pertains to the House. But there are some things, like budget appropriation recommendations, that they would have to sign off on. 

That said, and we’ve talked about it a little bit, but there is a huge disparity between the House and the Senate in a lot of different areas. These include rules related to social media use, ethics, travel … all these different things. And one of the things I think we’re going to try to do, where it would be fruitful, is to try and align those things more and make them less dissimilar. Because it’s confusing when a senator has one set of rules and a congressman has another set of rules. 

TWN: Now, that to me seems like a tall order. After all, a lot of these things developed over time and there’s a longstanding tradition that … well, the Senate and the House are different …

Derek Kilmer: Well, there are some things where, like William mentioned, social media rules, where it is convoluted. On the House side … because you have multiple versions of yourself …

William Timmons: There are specific rules that no one follows on how and what you can do and who can do … and it’s just really confusing. By comparison, the Senate has a much more updated approach. … and we’re still trying to figure out if there is a way to bring those rules into a better alignment. It might not get done, but it is going to be looked into.

Rep. William Timmons during a recent meeting of the Select Committee. (Photo courtesy Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress)

TWN: So let’s talk a bit about what just happened. Last Thursday you released your first set of recommendations for the 117th Congress. There are far fewer in this new batch. Perhaps you could explain what you recommended and why?

Derek Kilmer: Sure. The approach of our committee has always been when we can get agreement on recommendations, we pass those recommendations. And we actually did them in chunks last year. It wasn’t that we waited until the end of the year and passed 97.

William Timmons: It was more like, we passed 20 or 30 at a time …

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, it was like 20 or 30 at a time. This tranche focused predominantly on staffing issues. 

I think there’s a recognition that if we want to make Congress work better, we have to appreciate the important role that staff play. Staff are usually the first people that our constituents talk to, they’re incredibly important in the policy development process, and in making sure that the voices of our constituents are heard in the policy process.

 And yet, there’s a recognition that there’s a brain drain that happens in Congress when the average tenure of a staffer is, you know, three to four years, right? And so one of the tasks that this committee was assigned was to look at how you recruit, retain and have more diverse staff. 

A lot of our recommendations from the last Congress, we’re focused on that, but we recognized that there was more to be done there. I’ll just give you a few examples. One of the things we heard was that there was a much higher rate of departure for mid-tier staff, than for entry-level or senior staff. 

As we talked to staff associations and private industry and folks from federal agencies, one of the things we heard was offering people help in getting professional certifications and an additional degree was something staff really value and can help with retention.

So, for example, say you have a staffer who focuses on defense policy and wants to get a master’s in national security policy.

Right now, the way things are set up, if someone comes to your office with student debt from having taken such a program, they can see some of their debt repaid — it’s a form of partial loan forgiveness as a staff benefit. The same is true for someone who goes to work in the executive branch. 

But if that same staffer joined your office without that degree, but is taking a program at George Washington University or Georgetown to get additional certification, there is no help. That’s on their nickel.

So, two of our recommendations were focused around staff certifications and helping them develop professionally, and the rationale behind them was not only is this a good tool for retention, but it means our staff is developing additional skills to serve our constituents better. 

Another thing we heard as we listened to staff is that while there are a lot of terrific staff who work here, sometimes difficulties arise when people are put in managerial positions who haven’t managed before. So one of our recommendations was to provide management training to people who are in managerial positions, or at least make it available so that people can get better at their jobs.

We’ve all been in jobs where if we have a good manager, we’re more likely to stick around. And we’ve probably all been in jobs where we’ve had someone as a manager, and we think, “This isn’t going to work.” 

Along with that, we’ve also made some recommendations around things like internships and providing internships with committees.

One of the things we heard in one of our hearings was that oftentimes a person’s initial foot in the door into Congress is through an internship … but a.) those opportunities aren’t available for congressional committees, and b.) those opportunities that are available are not paid. There’s no stipend available.

So what that means is you’re limiting the number of opportunities you are making available for people to get their foot in the door here, and you’re limiting the opportunities that are available to people who have the wealth to take an unpaid internship. 

William Timmons: One thing to add to that … even as recently as three to five years ago … There was no budget set aside for members to pay interns. You had to use your member’s budget, [known as the Member Representational Allowance, it is based on a standard staffing figure, an official expenses figure, and an official mail figure.] It was kind of a shoot from the hip situation, and people did whatever they wanted. 

So we created a separate intern budget where members are paying them $15 an hour …. which is a pretty substantial stipend, but which also is intended to help address the cost of living in D.C. 

The Select Committee at work. (Photo courtesy Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress)

So that was huge. And originally it was only for D.C., but they expanded it to members’ districts … So now, we’re creating another budget — another pot of money — so that committee’s can do the same thing.

So in five years we’ve gone from a system based on unpaid internships to one with good stipends where anybody can come up here and work. That’s a huge difference.

TWN: Speaking of change, you’re new as the ranking member of the select committee …

William Timmons: I am. I said this yesterday in some of the closing remarks, but we’re in such an incredible spot right now. Just think back to the 116th Congress. We were originally really only given an eight or 10 month runway, and you know, it was all right. We were determined to make a difference, but had a limited time to do so, so it was off to the races and we were kind of sprinting. And so we were getting towards the end, and the speaker was kind enough to give us more time.

So we got 97 recommendations done. A lot of that was what we call low-hanging fruit, things that everybody can agree to and we were unanimous on almost everything.

But every time we had a problem we would generally say, well we don’t have enough time to solve this, so we better move on. Under the 117th Congress we don’t have eight or 10 months, we have two years. I mean, we’re constituted through the end of this Congress, which is December of next year. So as of right now, we still have more time than we had the entire 116th Congress to do our job. 

I mean, really, substantially more, considering COVID and the impact that had. So I think we’re in a great spot, because all the members now know each other, we all understand what we’re doing, we’ve got a great team at the staff level, everybody’s clicking, we just went through the process where it wasn’t unanimous on everything. And I think that’s great. And you know, we’re gonna hit the ground running and we’ve got a lot of really important things to tackle in the next 17 months.

TWN: Now, one of the things you guys have been talking about a lot recently is civility …

William Timmons: That’s the December package Our Christmas present to this country is going to be another set of recommendations and it’s going to be around civility and norms. 

Derek Kilmer: That’s the plan.

William Timmons: And I put it into three buckets, which are, in my mind, time, relationship building, and incentive structures. A lot of different things go into those things. But addressing each of them is how we are going to foster civility and change the norms.

TWN: Okay, but in this divisive climate and with everything that has been going on this past week: infrastructure, the Jan. 6 Committee meeting, the renewed debate over to mask or not to mask, how do you get the good government work you’re doing and the important things you’re saying, heard?

William Timmons: I don’t care what makes the news …

TWN: Hey …

William Timmons: Seriously, I don’t care what makes the news or what 400-plus other people are arguing about, as long as this stuff gets done. So, they can go and yell and scream at each other on Twitter and on the news, but at the end of the day, what the 12 people on this committee are doing is going to make this place better. And so I’m solely focused on that; everything else is noise.

TWN: Ok. Let’s circle back to civility for a moment. How do you get beyond politics? I mean, most of this arguing is driven by “I want to get re-elected next time” or “I want my side of the aisle to be in the majority next time” … How do you push back against that? 

William Timmons: You just have to make it so that people can hear people from a place of respect and understand that my district is different from his, and my constituents don’t think the same things his constituents think. But he’s here to represent them. And he’s doing the best he can. And I’m here to represent my constituents the best I can, and I respect his views and their views and we can disagree on policy … but I guarantee you that we probably agree on 75% or 80% of stuff. So let’s work on that. 

TWN: You mentioned your constituents. Is it your sense that the work of this select committee is a reflection of what people back in your districts really want to see?

William Timmons: Well, honestly, when it comes to the loudest voices in my district, I don’t talk about this because they don’t want me to talk about [making Congress work better]. They want me to talk about how I’m going to say the meanest thing I can as loud as I can. But they’re not the majority. They represent the 10%, on either side, that are angry and that are not necessarily reasonable. So 80% of people in this country need to drive the policy, not the people you hear from all the time.

Derek Kilmer: And here’s what I would say. We had a couple of hearings on civility; one asking the question, how did Congress get where it is? And then for the second one, we had a hearing where we heard from an organizational psychologist from the Wharton School of Business; we heard from the head of Braver Angels, who’s a family therapist. We heard from Amanda Ripley, a reporter who wrote a book called “High Conflict,” looking at corrosive conflict in our society. And the fourth person was a political scientist who kind of looked at Congress and some of the things that have led to its breakdown. 

And it’s funny, we debated also inviting an exorcist to come in.

But a few things became clear. Part of the way you change culture is through relationship building. It’s a lot easier to yell on the floor and call names to someone that you just don’t know. And there are things as an institution that we can do, and we’ve recommended some already, that can be constructive in that process of relationship building. 

Some of the processes here also make it more difficult. William, particularly, has been hammering issues related to the congressional calendar and schedule. We’re not here all that much. Two years ago we were here 65 full days …

Another photo of the Select Committee in action. (Photo courtesy Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress)

William Timmons: Sixty-five full days, 66 travel days. You can’t get anything done in 65 days.

Derek Kilmer: And the average member is on 5.4 committees and subcommittees, and all of those committee hearings are all happening on top of each other in those 65 full days. And the consequence of that is rather than having committees be the place where members develop expertise and drive policy, too often our committees become a place where people give five minute speeches that they can put on social media, and then have to run to their next committee.

William Timmons: With no exchange of ideas whatsoever in committee. 

Derek Kilmer: And that’s not terrific for either culture or for evidence-based policymaking.

William Timmons: And it’s not just that there’s no exchange of ideas. No one ever defends their ideas. And no one ever has to defend their ideas in front of their colleagues. When I was in the State Senate in South Carolina, we had 46 members and when we were in session, you sat at your desk in the chamber and you listened to people. And when someone proposed something, they got questions from both sides of the aisle and they had to say why it was good. It doesn’t take long, when you get peppered with questions, to determine whether you have a good idea or not. So there’s no defense of ideas, there’s no exchange of ideas, and that’s why we just keep spinning our wheels. 

TWN: So, let me ask you this question, why do you guys like this job? 

William Timmons: I really don’t like it. But if we don’t get this right, we’re not going to have a country. We have all these huge challenges that we keep not fixing, whether it’s debt, immigration, health care, we have all these major things that we keep trying to fix on party line votes, which are never going to happen. So the question then becomes if we continue to go in this direction, what is the outcome? And I’m thinking that’s an inevitable outcome. So trying to stop that outcome is why this is worth it.

Derek Kilmer: I would just add that I think one of the common denominators among, not just our committee, but a fair amount of people in Congress is we’re genetically hopeful. We wouldn’t be serving in this body if we didn’t feel like things could get better. … and that we could play a constructive role in making things better. And, you know, to the earlier point, that doesn’t mean the work in this committee is going to be leading cable news every night. But I think it really matters.

William Timmons: I agree with that description, that at the end of the day, we’re hopeful. There were some things we discussed over the past few months that we just couldn’t get over the finish line. But that doesn’t mean they’re done. We’re just going to keep working on them. And recommendations on these things may show up in December, or they may show up next August, or they may show up next December. 

So I think the beauty of this committee is we’re all committed to trying to find a way to get to yes. I mean, I think everyone on the committee would agree that they are good ideas. We all agree on that. We just can’t figure out how to implement them. So we keep working on them, and I think that’s a good part of the process. 

TWN: That’s the beauty of having the luxury of time in regard to this committee and this Congress. But it also seems like a marked contrast to how a lot of the work is done around here with artificial deadlines set and major things, like the infrastructure bill, being done in a rush … 

Derek Kilmer: We just had a hearing on how committees function. And one of the people we heard from was the former director of the Armed Services Committee. And it was really instructive to hear why, for 50-odd years, the National Defense Authorization Act has enjoyed bipartisan support. Part of it is because of how the committee functions, because there is an open exchange of ideas, there is an opportunity to provide amendments, the committee leadership, and because, whether it is led by the Democrats or Republicans, when it comes to decision-making, it tries to reflect the interests of the members of the committee. And that can be rare in this place. 

I contrast that with — And I don’t say this in a partisan way, I’m just sharing the story — with the experience I had with a friend, a Republican, who is no longer in Congress.

This is when we voted on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and my friend was on the House Ways and Means Committee. On the morning of the vote, I asked my friend, “What’s your sense of this?” And he said, “I’m on the Ways and Means Committee, and I have no idea what’s in it.” I think that illustrates something that’s a real cause of frustration among rank-and-file members and the American people. That’s probably not how to do policymaking. 

And that situation is not unique to that piece of legislation or that majority. There’s a sense that things could function better and more collaboratively. And that raises another important point that came up during our discussion around civility.

I think it was important that our witnesses and our members agreed that “civility and collaboration” doesn’t mean you check your values at the door. There are things that I believe in and will fight for because they really matter to my constituents. Our system is premised on the fact that we’ll have this exchange of ideas, and sometimes, you know, there will be disagreements. Amanda Ripley, who testified in front of our committee said, there’s good conflict, and there’s what she calls “high conflict,” that’s corrosive and that becomes conflict that’s only in service of the conflict. And I think Congress needs to try to figure out how to build those good muscles again and avoid those high conflicts.

TWN: We’ve been here about 30 minutes now, talking about your committee work. Tell me something you’ve been working on specifically for your district.

Derek Kilmer: I’ve got something that I’m really excited about. I represent a district that is [composed] of a lot of communities that have really struggled economically. In fact, I grew up in one of them. I grew up in a little logging town on the coast. 

And as we’ve looked at the question of how to create economic opportunity for those communities, three things became clear. One, most of these communities really struggle to navigate the complex system of federal grants and loans. Most of them don’t have grant writers on staff. Two, while a one year grant can be helpful, most of these communities didn’t fall into struggles in one year, and they’re not going to get out of them in one year. And three, different communities have different needs. I’ve got some communities where they don’t have internet, and I’ve got some communities where they’ve got real flooding problems. And I’ve got some communities where the issue is the workforce. 

So we just introduced a bipartisan bill. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., is the lead on the Republican side. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., is leading it on the Senate side, to provide long term, flexible grants to persistently economically distressed communities with an eye towards helping them turn things around. When I hear the president talking about building back better, what I think I hear him saying is that we need to recognize that, even before COVID, there were a lot of communities that were hurting, and we can’t leave them behind. 

One of the reasons I came to Congress was I think you should have economic opportunity, regardless of what zip code you live in. We’ve got work to do there. So that’s something I’m working on that I think could make a big difference for my constituents. And we’re hoping as this broader conversation around the recovery bill and a reconciliation package develops that this is a part of it. Right, we’re trying to make sure that if the train does in fact leave the station, we’re on it.

TWN: And you, sir?

William Timmons: I always joke I was sent to Congress to try to get the federal government not to screw up the good things we have going on in my district. People move to the Upstate of South Carolina from all over the country — all over the world, in fact. We have businesses relocating to the area all the time. We’ve got natural beauty. We’ve got mountains, we’re a couple of hours from the beach, and the business climate is incredible. It’s just a wonderful place, going in the right direction, and everybody is happy. 

So I’m actually really focused on this committee because I think that Congress, and the federal government more generally, has the potential to really derail the future of every man, woman and child in this country if we can’t maintain a positive trajectory … if we let China take over the world, we’re going to be in a bad spot. 

So Congress needs to do its job. And I always go back to the debt, immigration, and health care. Immigration is not hard; a group of fifth graders could fix it in an afternoon, but we don’t have the courage to have these hard conversations and figure out a path forward. I’m just worried that we are too late. I hope we’re not, but I do think that we can help make this body more functional. 

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