To serve Americans and the country better, lawmakers must have the tools and functional work environment they need to succeed. Yet, many members of Congress face a variety of basic barriers in having what they require to serve their constituents and make a real difference. For new members, in particular, the process of setting up congressional and district offices as well as a busy orientation process detracts from their ability to have an impact as soon as they take office. Additionally, the lack of an effective centralized office to support lawmakers and their staff only makes the entire process that much harder, and many offices use their own funds to pay for external services that should be provided in-house—and some that already are. In short, it is incredibly daunting to start up a new office, but there are ways to address several of those problems.
Because of these challenges, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing on July 11 focused on setting up members for success from the start and exploring ways that Congress can help a new generation of leaders begin truly serving more quickly.
Chairman Kilmer began by announcing that he and Vice Chair Graves would not be running the hearing, as they traditionally would do. Instead, that role was filled by two freshman members serving on the committee, Reps. Mary Scanlon (D-PA) and William Timmons (R-SC). They provided a fresh perspective as new members who had to quickly adapt to the ins and outs of Congress. As the winner of a special election who took office two months before the rest of the freshman class, Rep. Scanlon had a particularly steep learning curve.
Witnesses included Philip Kiko, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) in the House; Stacy Householder, Director of Leaders’ Services and Legislative Training for the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL); and Richard Shapiro, who previously served as the Executive Director of the Congressional Management Foundation and has written extensively on management in Congress. Here are 3 key takeaways on how Congress can set up new members to succeed and give them the tools they need to lead:
1. Being a new member is already overwhelming. Orientation shouldn’t be.
Rep. Timmons likened new member orientation, which takes place every two years at the start of each new Congress, to “drinking from a firehose.” It’s an overwhelming experience as new members scramble to take in all the information they’ll need for their congressional careers, and it’s even worse for members who miss any part of orientation and must catch up.
Rep. Timmons had his own suggestion for how to relieve some of the pressure. He suggested that trainings should be recorded and archived so that new lawmakers who can’t attend part of orientation don’t miss crucial information, and members who need a refresher can revisit the recordings “on demand.” Shapiro suggested that new member orientation should focus only on what members need to know for the next 60 days so they can better hit the ground running. Like building blocks, they would cover the foundational issues first. Later, they would address topics that come into play as the year rolls out, like the appropriations process or committees, when members are more settled—an approach he referred to as “just in time” training.
2. Leadership training and professional development aren’t just for staff.
During the last Modernization Committee hearing on staff diversity and retention, the panel discussed the importance of professional development and leadership skills resources for staff. The CAO’s new Congressional Staff Academy may ultimately address some of those needs by providing leadership seminars and House-specific trainings. But what about members of Congress themselves?
Peer-to-peer leadership is key. Householder highlighted the importance of this tool in NCSL’s efforts to develop leaders on the state level. By connecting former state legislators to current ones, NCSL has crafted a program that allows legislators to gain insights and understand the legislative process directly from their peers who have experienced it. She also said that the best way to foster new leaders is to identify potential and feed it. Leaders at the state level will refer promising junior members of their caucus to NCSL’s leadership programs, or request resources to build their skillset. Shapiro suggested that the CAO introduce a program for members of Congress that is modeled to the specific skills that members of Congress require as they become more seasoned.
3. Members of Congress need better help and more of it.
A resounding theme throughout many of the Modernization Committee’s hearings is the idea of a centralized human resources (HR) office. The committee has discussed how this idea could improve staff diversity and morale, but the lack of a centralized HR office also continues to hurt the ability of members of Congress to carry out their duties. The burden of researching and resolving personnel and other issues falls to each individual office, which impairs members’ effectiveness as their resources are diverted toward solving matters that other House support offices or other more senior members may already know how to handle. Freshman offices, in particular, could benefit most from the help and expertise of others.
Members of the committee also expressed that they could use more robust resources to address technology and administrative issues. As Chairman Kilmer pointed out, many members turn to outside vendors for tech support services that are supposed to be provided in-house at no cost because of the inefficiencies that arise from trying to meet the needs of the entire House at once, particularly at the beginning of a new Congress. In fact, the entire process of setting up a new office is long and arduous, illustrated by a convoluted 80-step diagram presented by Kiko.
Panelists had different suggestions on how to tackle this ongoing issue. Kiko suggested that the solution might be similar to the “just in time” approach—set offices up with the simple technology they need to get up and running and address permanent solutions later. Shapiro offered that, instead, members might be given a small budget to hire someone to assist them for the first 60 days and relieve some of the pressure on the CAO. The overall sentiment of the Select Committee was that while the CAO provides a valuable resource and has been making improvements in its services to members, there are clear gaps in the services currently provided, and the CAO struggles to effectively support all of the offices it is responsible for.
Reps. Scanlon and Timmons represent an energetic new generation of leaders in Congress. With fresh faces and new leaders present, an opportunity exists to create a Congress that works—not only for the American people but for members and staff who are dedicating their time to represent their constituents. In order to modernize, Congress must support them and their staff by giving them the tools and support they need to succeed.
If you missed the hearing, you can find it here.