As partisan bickering and political divides continue to dominate headlines, it’s easy to forget that positive things are happening in Congress. Despite this, progress is being made, including on the Modernization Committee—one of the few truly bipartisan committees in Congress.
So, what can Congress as a whole learn from the Modernization Committee’s bipartisan leadership and its members? And what’s next for the committee as it works to find ways to make Congress work better for the American people?
In the kickoff to a new feature of the Congress That Works series, “Committee Chat: Q&A with the Modernization Committee”, Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Vice Chair Tom Graves (R-GA) share their thoughts. Check out the Q&A below!
1. Can you tell us more about your personal background? What kind of experiences did you have before being elected to Congress and how did that perspective help prepare you for what you are doing now?
Chair Kilmer: I was born and raised on the Olympic Peninsula – in the district I now serve. When I was in high school, the timber industry took it on the chin, and I saw a lot of folks struggle economically in our region. That’s shaped most of my adult life. After grad school, I worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company and then spent a decade working in economic development professionally. I’ve spent my professional career – and my time in public service – focusing on creating more economic opportunities for more people in more places – so that regardless of your zip code, you have the opportunity to earn a decent living.
Vice Chair Graves: My Dad always gave me the advice of “Work hard, dream big and you will achieve much.” I think about that every day. Growing up, we lived in a single-wide trailer on a gravel road in Georgia. I started my first business when I was 17 and continued working to pay my way through college at the University of Georgia. I was a landscaping and real estate entrepreneur and didn’t really think about politics much until my thirties. What inspired my first run for the state house was my wife, Julie, and her activism in the pro-life community. She opened my eyes to how public engagement can impact communities and bring positive change.
2. What do you hear from constituents back home? Do they feel that Congress works well? What kinds of suggestions do they make to you?
Chair Kilmer: Folks back home think there’s far too much partisan bickering and far too little progress. I agree. It’s safe to say that Congress is a real fixer-upper. Most of the folks I represent care less about whether things get more Democratic or more Republican; rather, they want things to move forward rather than backward. That’s why I’m a part of groups like the New Democrat Coalition, the Bipartisan Working Group and why I’m serving on this Select Committee. There’s plenty of room for commonsense, bipartisan solutions to our nation’s problems. I’ll continue to work to find agreement where I can in hopes that we can improve people’s lives.
Vice Chair Graves: Through this committee, we have an opportunity to set the tone for what our constituents hear from Washington. People appreciate solutions and are tired of the daily headlines about inaction and gridlock from Congress. Chairman Kilmer has done a great job prioritizing progress and results. It’s up to us to drive this committee forward on behalf of the American people. Solutions don’t always have to have a partisan sticker on them.
3. From your standpoint, what’s one do-able thing that you think the committee can tackle in the near term and long term?
Chair Kilmer: One issue the Select Committee can make progress on is technology. Congress must deal with 21st-century problems – but far too often, we are held back by a 20th-century technology infrastructure. Whether it’s making a centralized place online that folks can find committee votes or modernizing the disclosure system so it’s easier to track who is lobbying for what, there is plenty we can do to make Congress more open and accessible to the public.
Looking forward, we also think there’s a lot of room for improvement in how we retain a diverse staff. Capitol Hill has extremely high turnover rates – if we want the best and brightest minds working in our government, we need to make sure our pay, benefits, etc. match that of competing industries.
4. The committee consists of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. How do you—and the committee—work together across the aisle? Can that tactic apply to Congress as a whole? If so, what might need to change to engender a more bipartisan environment?
Vice Chair Graves: Our approach to every committee hearing is to elevate who has the best ideas to help make our government work better – not what Democratic idea or Republican idea is better. Modernizing Congress and improving the way we serve the American people should not be a partisan issue, and I think that is a sentiment our fellow committee members share. The Select Committee is one of the only true bipartisan Committees in Congress, with six Democrats and six Republicans. We’ve worked collaboratively in a number of different ways to stand up the Committee and do things a little different – we hire staff together, we set goals and expectations together, and we’re open and transparent about how to move forward.
Importantly, to move any recommendation out of Committee, we need 2/3 support of the entire Committee – which inherently means that we have to work to find solutions with bipartisan support.
We think this model can serve as a good example for the rest of Congress. When we come together and give good-faith efforts to cooperate and find solutions, everyone – especially the American people – benefits.
5. Thinking ahead, what do you think success would look like for the committee? And are you optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between about the potential for the congressional committees and Congress as a whole to act on the Select Committee’s recommendations?
Chair Kilmer: I think the metric for success is pretty simple: achieving meaningful progress through the recommendations this Committee puts forward. Our charge was specific – and if we can find solutions that have bipartisan buy-in from the start, I hope that the rest of Congress can take those seriously.
We’re confident that once Congress takes a look at our recommendations and realizes that – not only are they non-partisan, but really important – they will resonate. We are committed to actually enacting our recommendations. We don’t want to put out a report and move on. To really impact Congress and improve the way we serve the American people, the whole House needs to be on board. That’s our next step.
6. Finally, what’s one fun fact about yourself that most people would find surprising?
Chair Kilmer: I am a HUGE movie buff. I spend a lot of my (limited) free time catching my kids up on classic movies I grew up on that I think are absolutely timeless (and critical to their future)… I take pride in the fact that I’m raising two daughters who share my affection for Star Wars. In fact, in 2016, I was “confidently called” Congress’s No. 1 Star Wars fan by the Washington Post.
Vice Chair Graves: I like to exercise and enjoy “bipartisan” jogs and Solidcore classes with other members while in DC. Back home, I run on trails and used to compete in triathlons with my son, John, who is now on the cycling team at Georgia Tech.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Chairman Kilmer and Vice Chair Graves! Stay tuned for more conversations with members of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.