It is well-known that Americans are dissatisfied with Congress’s functioning, but how do members of Congress themselves feel? And what do they think can be done to fix the institution?
On March 12, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held its first hearing for members of Congress to testify on what they think can be done to improve the way the House of Representatives works. The participant list of 30 members ranged from House leadership, including Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Hoyer, and Minority Leader McCarthy; to freshmen members like Reps. Brian Mast (R-FL) and Lauren Underwood (D-MI).
“Unproductive,” “dysfunctional,” “polarized” are some of the words Americans use to describe Congress—but how does the institution describe itself? Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-WA) opened the hearing by stating that “We can all agree that we can do better.” Vice Chair Tom Graves (R-GA) echoed similar thoughts by saying this committee provides a chance to improve how Congress functions. Chairman Kilmer and Vice Chair Graves emphasized the necessity of the committee to work across the aisle to identify solutions: Rep. Kilmer stated that the committee is “all on the same team” and has “more common ground than realized,” and that its goal is to find that common ground. Members who testified offered similar sentiments, expressing the desire for the institution to be structured in a way that fosters trust and relationship building across the aisle.
Here are five key takeaways from the hearing:
Many members expressed the desire for Congress to be structured in a way that increases the opportunities for both parties to work together. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) suggested that the House Rules Committee create a rule so that bipartisan legislation is given priority. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) recommended that the physical structure of Congress be redesigned to promote open communication, citing that social and physical designs are key to positive outcomes. He also suggested that the new member orientation process be improved so that members are better able to socialize across party lines.
One of Chairman Kilmer’s stated interests is improving the technology in Congress—and it was also a high-priority item for members who testified. Aside from improving the physical technology in Congress, several members promoted the idea of using technology to ease and increase communications with constituents. Among the ideas suggested were establishing an online portal for constituents to submit casework, providing a texting service so that constituents can text their representatives and vice versa, and creating an online system that simplifies the tracking of legislation.
While members of Congress are the outward-facing representation of government, congressional staff are the boots on the ground that keep our government running. Members of Congress rely on their staff to formulate legislation—and see it through the legislative process. Yet, low staff pay leads to high turnover rates and a lack of diversity. Several members who testified, including Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Hoyer, emphasized the need to promote staff retention and diversity. Speaker Pelosi suggested offering paid internships so that people from all socio-economic backgrounds can gain congressional experience. Leader Hoyer stated that low staff salary endangers Congress’s ability to legislate because staff often leave for the higher-paying private sector or Executive Branch.
Along the lines of a greater need for bipartisanship, some testifying members suggested a new congressional schedule that allows for more time in D.C. to build relationships with colleagues across the aisle. The current congressional schedule is set-up in a way so that members typically only spend four days a week in Washington—and often for only three weeks out of the month. Many stated that four days a week does not allow for enough time to get to know colleagues. Instead, some members recommended the schedule be revamped to spend more time consecutively in Washington.
Some members suggested that committees’ jurisdiction be rebalanced so that members can take a greater role in their respective committees and have more legislative power. members from both parties also reiterated the need for the budget and appropriations process to be improved. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) said that regular order is needed to stop the dysfunctional process that has led Congress to function crisis-to-crisis. Another Member, Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX), suggested a “No Budget, No Recess” rule to incentivize Congress to get work done.
The diverse and expansive list of members who participated in this hearing—from freshmen to leadership, those on the far-left and the far-right—suggest the desire to improve Congress from the inside is REAL. A Congress That Works is on the horizon!
You can watch the full hearing here.