After hearing from current members and experts on past congressional reform efforts, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held its third hearing on May 1 with former members of Congress. Having left the institution, these six former members were no holds barred when sharing their thoughts on how Congress can function better. The bipartisan group who testified included former Reps. Tom Davis (R-VA), Vic Fazio (D-CA), Martin Frost (D-TX), Reid Ribble (R-WI), Tim Roemer (D-IN), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). With nearly 100 years of combined experience in Congress, here are the top five takeaways for how they think Congress can be improved:
With a high cost of living in Washington, congressional staff, whose pay level is typically (and often significantly) lower than the Executive Branch and private sector, have a serious disincentive to stay. Furthermore, the current cap on staff pay puts Congress at a disadvantage in competing with salaries offered outside Congress—or even by the Senate, which generally pays more than the House. This causes a “brain drain” with knowledgeable staff leaving to work elsewhere—or not even coming to Congress to begin with. If Congress wants to retain its talented, trusted staff, it must invest in them by raising the member pay cap which in turn will allow an increase in staff salaries and also offer professional development opportunities.
Simultaneously, according to the testimony, Congress loses hardworking members due to day-to-day frustrations. When asked what would have kept them in Congress longer, here’s how some of the former members responded:
A common thread in the Committee’s hearings has been the need to increase bipartisanship and build civility in Congress, and this hearing was no different. Nearly every former member mentioned the need for more work across-the-aisle, and one way of achieving this is to increase the amount of time people spend together. Former members suggested increasing bipartisan travel and ensuring that new members have ample time to bond with the opposite party during freshman orientation.
Notably, outside groups, like the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), are actively working to bring diverse members together to find common ground. BPC’s American Congressional Exchange program pairs members of Congress from opposite parties and culturally divergent constituencies to visit one another’s districts to better understand each other and appreciate other parts of the country. Programs like these not only help develop trust, they also build a shared experience that brings members together to act on behalf of the American people.
Another way to build trust and civility across-the-aisle is to improve the congressional schedule. Former members suggested that more time in D.C. is needed for members to get to know one another and work together. The current congressional schedule makes it difficult for members to get work done—and to build relationships. While the vision for a reformed schedule differed from witness to witness, all agreed that the current calendar requires improvement. The Bipartisan Policy Center has long called for a five-day workweek with three weeks spent in D.C. and one week spent in the district per month.
What’s a common sentiment that has been repeated at every hearing? The American public lacks trust in Congress. Congress must be willing to be open and transparent. Some people think that Congress is run by big money or lobbyists—and Congress does focus frequently on fundraising. If members were able to focus less on fundraising and more on improving transparency, perhaps the American public would gain more trust in the institution.
Congress’s technology isn’t up-to-speed with the modern era. Not only would updated technology help smooth day-to-day operations, it would also help members better keep in touch with constituents, increasing Congress’s transparency. Ideas to improve Congress’s technology include using social media more to show constituents what day-to-day life in Congress is like and developing an app that can help coordinate committee work and the floor schedule.