The best performing committees of the House are often those where Members’ interests fall outside the typical bounds of partisanship. This is true for the recently created Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, much as it is true for its established standing committee parent, the Committee on House Administration. What makes these committees generally non-partisan is that the jurisdiction of each relates to the daily lifestyle and mechanics of the House.
Leadership of both parties has helped foster this comity by endeavoring to assign affable legislators to these two committees. To date, that is a bipartisan success that should be more widely recognized and celebrated.
Where the two committees often fall short, however, is in providing solutions to the broader and more substantive institutional concerns of the day. In the case of the Select Committee, I’ll discuss two broad areas where the committee’s focus has been lacking but can still be addressed. Those areas are the congressional calendar and contemporary societal concerns. Lastly, I’ll touch on a few of the Select Committee’s recent recommendations and what they mean for the committee’s future.
The Congressional Calendar and the Balance of Power
While the congressional calendar is frequently debated by the rank-and-file, the Select Committee’s efforts to address it were doomed from the start. As a former staff member in the House Majority Leader’s Office, I was responsible for advising then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor on the House’s annual calendar and day-to-day floor schedule from 2011-2013. Under no circumstances would we have ceded our authority on that issue.
The same is true today. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has no incentive to decentralize his decision-making when it comes to the annual calendar and daily floor schedule. To do so would significantly weaken the elected party position of Majority Leader, not to mention Hoyer’s own personal authority.
Knowing this, the Select Committee’s focus should have left the topic of the calendar and floor schedule aside, and instead focused on reforming the scheduling of committees. While the Majority Leader is generally responsible for managing and overseeing the committees of the House, he or she rarely weighs in on the day-to-day happenings of each committee. Because that authority is decentralized, it is ripe for intervention.
Members of Congress on both sides often bemoan the shrinking legislative influence of Congress. They purport that while the Founders sought to make the Legislative Branch the “most powerful” of our three branches of government, the modern Congress has failed to live up to that original intention. Executive overreach via aggressive rulemaking, orders, and proclamations has certainly filled the void, as have examples of judicial activism and overreach. But these are symptoms, not causes.
Rather than casting blame outwards, we should first examine the institution itself. Any honest introspection would include an admonition of what can aptly be described as a poorly functioning committee system. Perhaps the first question we should ask is why a committee hearing room is often empty.
The majority of the House’s rank-and-file, excepting Members assigned to exclusive “A” committees like Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, and Ways and Means, serve on more than one committee. This leads to frequently overlapping and conflicting schedules for Members. This problem is further compounded by the fact that Members serve on a multitude of subcommittees within each of their full committee assignments.
When pressed for time, Members choose not to sit and listen to the prepared remarks of their colleagues, especially when said remarks are often talking points. Hearings and markups can be described as theater, much like debate on the House floor. Though C-SPAN cameras provide transparency, they also create actors out of legislators. The august legislators of yesteryear have made way for the congressional generalists of today.
The inefficiency of the current committee scheduling system is most apparent in the erosion of policy expertise among Members. Self-imposed term-limits, aggressive primary challenges, and wave elections have further contributed to an expertise drain over the last decade and a half. And though there are many more root causes responsible for this modern trend, the House would benefit from a renewal of committee participation. This may seem obvious, but it bears stating: policy experts, rather than generalists, are best equipped to handle policy challenges.
The Select Committee could first approach this concern by tackling committee attendance. (A second area to address is Member and staff civics training, which I will briefly touch on below.) State legislatures around the country employ various scheduling tactics at the committee level to help alleviate conflicts. The Select Committee should tap into that wealth of knowledge (our nation’s “ideas incubators”) to inform recommendations for the House on committee scheduling.
Reform is difficult when someone’s equities are to be diminished. In this case, the broader committee schedule has no one central figure who is at risk of diminished control. Reform is therefore possible and would be a more worthy aim of the Select Committee than the House floor schedule or annual calendar.
Contemporary Societal Issues and the Consequences for the Institution
Organic cultural and societal issues of the day are usually addressed through the quick reaction of the House’s majority party. Today, the two most pressing issues are racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic. The effects of these issues have far-reaching consequences for society and will likewise have a lasting impact on the House of Representatives and how it operates as an institution. A nimble committee made up of mainly non-partisans is exactly the type of group to handle an analysis of those effects and make recommendations for moving forward.
The Speaker has acted with decisive speed to address Confederate-related art and statues in the Capitol, no doubt through informed consultation with the Congressional Black Caucus. Unilateral action on the part of the Speaker resulted in a speedy outcome, but it leaves behind a deeper analysis of the precedent created and how future moments will be treated.
Having acted swiftly, the Speaker could now deploy the Select Committee to hold inclusive and thorough hearings on the historical context. The goal would be to recommend a unifying long-term set of principles and policies that could instruct the House well into the future, regardless of party control. To that end, the Select Committee’s membership should be expanded to include greater diversity, but cultural, societal, and historical topics that elicit passionate responses from both sides of the aisle are a good fit for a committee such as this.
The pandemic is another area where the Select Committee could have stepped in to examine a bipartisan approach. Instead, the House created a proxy voting system, pushed forward by the Committee on Rules, an historically partisan extension of the Speaker. There are already examples of abuse in the newly created system and a lawsuit is underway that could challenge the constitutionality of votes cast by the House while utilizing proxies. Regardless of our views of those bills considered during proxy voting, no citizen should want the legislative actions of its duly elected Members to be invalidated because of a hasty (and partisan) process foul; in this case a rush to change over two hundred years of House precedence.
Yes, speed was necessary to address the House’s logistical issues created by the pandemic. But the House has shown an overall lack of leadership in adapting itself to the crisis and the Speaker’s decision-making has been divisive. There were other remedies available to the House, including emergency powers granted to the Speaker following 9/11 that allow for the lowering of the House’s quorum requirement (“provisional quorum”) whenever a traditional quorum cannot be met due to “natural disaster, attack, contagion, or a similar calamity.”
Whether an emergency provisional quorum could have been applied to the current pandemic (or other remedies available to the House that the Rules Committee originally laid out) is something the Select Committee could have explored. A coordinated, fulsome, and bipartisan approach would have fared better. The Committee on House Administration is finally undertaking work on the feasibility and security of remote voting. But the Select Committee should go beyond those logistical mechanics and lean into the void, holding hearings with outside experts on all aspects of the pandemic’s effects on the workings of the institution.
The Future of the Select Committee
The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been a worthwhile endeavor. The seeds that helped produce it—groups like the House Problem Solvers Caucus (PSC)—are the same that can empower it further. The Problem Solvers, though not involved in the creation of the committee, took the tried and true “gang” strategy of the Senate, and successfully applied it to the House, scoring multiple House Rules changes during the opening of this Congress.
This gang concept, when used in the House, involves bipartisan Members banding together to extract concessions from the majority party leadership on issues of importance to them. Without concessions (e.g., a particular amendment being made in order), the group will threaten to swing a vote against the leadership. It’s akin to hostage taking, but it can prove successful, especially when there is a rush to legislative action by the majority without input from the rank-and-file.
If Chairman Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves are not granted the latitude by the Speaker to fully take on the aforementioned challenges, they should seek out the PSC and band together to enforce and expand the mandate of the Select Committee. In short, they need to think bigger and act more boldly.
Whether the Select Committee is reestablished on its own for another Congress, or folds in under the House Administration Committee (e.g., as a subcommittee) as some have suggested, no matter. But the modernization of Congress should not be a once-in-a-decade phenomenon as it has been treated heretofore. A readymade group of legislators to lead reform should be extended, but most importantly, expanded and empowered with real responsibility.
Now having issued a series of recommendations, the Select Committee should listen closely to the feedback of its colleagues and the critical analysis of outside observers. Among the recommendations, there are two areas that appear quite good and could use further encouragement:
Staffing and Orientation. Perhaps the most vital component to a highly functioning Congress is its staff. Good staff make good congressional offices. It’s that simple. Here, a concerted effort should be made to both retain more experienced staff and enable less experienced Members to benefit from those same aides and their depth of knowledge. Whether through the Select Committee or House Administration Committee, a formal set of hiring practices and retention incentives should be established.
This, too, carries over to the Select Committee’s recommendations on Member-elect orientation programs. Historically, the House Republican Leader has provided his party’s Members-elect with a comprehensive manual entitled “Hit the Ground Running” that covers what to expect in those early days; everything from the committee assignment process, to how to hire a chief of staff, to Washington’s neighborhoods. The Select Committee should propose a similar, though non-partisan, guidebook that is focused on the procedures and, more importantly, the daily cultures of the House.
New Members have a steep learning curve and without help, they can face a rocky first six months in office that often results in rapid staff turnover. If left unmet, a lack of orientation and training leads to far-reaching problems, like a systemic loss of expertise.
The Select Committee should undertake a serious effort to beef up the expertise gap in Members. This starts with a recommitment to the committee process, as already discussed, and continues with a robust civics program for Members. The Select Committee has already tapped the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) to look into the feasibility of establishing a congressional academy for continued civic learning. This is a good first step, but if not popularized, Members will not avail themselves of the opportunity.
When Republicans won the House majority in 2010, they instituted a tradition of reading the Constitution on the House floor during the Opening Day of each Congress. This was an idea proposed by former Congressman Bob Goodlatte and it proved refreshingly popular on both sides of the aisle. The Select Committee should continue its work to expand upon this concept and create and popularize a robust civics training program for Members and staff.
Technology. I am the last person to opine on updating the House’s technology practices, though I am told many of the Select Committee’s recommendations are quite good. It does appear, however, that the Select Committee falls short in harnessing the capabilities of the private sector.
Inspired by Silicon Valley, then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor and then-Minority Whip Steny Hoyer hosted a first-ever congressional “Hackathon” whereby the private sector was asked to participate in developing ideas that leveraged innovative technologies to reform the House and its systems. This concept needs to be further institutionalized. Similar non-partisan engagements, when backed with leadership-level and bipartisan support, will help ensure our national legislative institutions keep pace with rapid changes in technology over time.
My old boss, then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, often used the example of FedEx as how the government should function, rather than what is the more comparable reality of the U.S. Postal Service. While the former brought massive innovation to the carrier industry through advanced logistics, the latter is often mired in debt and antiquated technology. We can either accept this is as a metaphor for the House’s shortcomings or the Select Committee can use it as motivation to focus on areas where light government touch can produce massive innovation in the House’s service to its constituents. And they have many bipartisan ideas to choose from.
Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has suggested a TALENT Act for Congress, which involves bringing service-minded technologists into government for a two-year tour of duty to help innovate. He has also promoted the use of “bug bounty” programs that have been successfully deployed at DHS and DOD to strengthen cybersecurity. Leader Hoyer has similarly worked on digital service initiatives.
The charge for the Select Committee is simple: harness private sector innovators who—when leveraged—can improve the Congress and produce valuable results for the citizenry.
The United States Congress is merely a mirror reflection of all of us, no more so than in the House of Representatives. Spend five minutes on Twitter and you’ll see a cohort equally as dysfunctional as its elected officials. Where we all must do better—not just the Select Committee and its recommendations—is in the civic education of Americans.
Today, popular culture and cable TV, instead of practitioners and source material, informs our understanding of the American system of government. Congress would do well to incentivize and promote greater civic education in our primary and secondary schools. The Select Committee should help the House lead by example, focusing on a recommitment to committee culture, emphasizing bipartisan solutions to contemporary institutional concerns, and incorporating thorough civics training, all while harnessing the ingenuity of the private sector.
Ultimately, a better functioning Congress and a revitalized Article I starts with preparing the next generation to serve, but we should not give up on today’s lawmakers in the process.