After visiting Capitol Hill, the Russian-born character actor Boris Marshalov remarked, “Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens. Then everybody disagrees.”
That was more than 75 years ago, during the era when President Harry Truman coined the phrase “do-nothing Congress.” Even so, there was a time when this great deliberative body of ours was productive and its members felt honored to serve. Thankfully, one Washingtonian is working to make that true once more.
In 2019, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, began chairmanship of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, or ModCom, determined to find ways to make Congress work better. Starting with ModCom itself, he insisting the 12-member committee have six Republicans and six Democrats and that all recommendations require a two-thirds vote. In these times, it sounds like self-sabotage, but ModCom has made 202 recommendations in four years, 130 of which have been implemented.
Consider productivity. In 1948, Truman was talking about the 80th Congress. But it passed 906 public laws. Congress hasn’t broken 500 in over two decades. The 112th passed only 283, making it the least productive session since the Civil War, while the most recent 117th only did slightly better with 362. To help reverse this trend, ModCom proposed a streamlined bill-writing process that has since been implemented.
Another area of dysfunction is annual budgeting. Here, ModCom proposed a program calling for transparency and accountability, and in 2022, the Committee on Appropriations reintroduced earmarks with strict transparency requirements.
One of the biggest problems is congressional culture. In his 1960 book “U.S. Senators and Their World,” University of Washington political scientist Donald Matthews described a Congress suffused with “institutional patriotism,” where senators identified as senators first and as Republicans or Democrats second. Almost 50 years later, in their 2006 book “The Broken Branch,” political analysts Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein lamented that by the 1990s this atmosphere was gone and Congress had become “something to endure,” an outpost in “the tribal war against the enemy in the other party.”
Thanks to ModCom efforts, the 117th Congress orientation program included a session on decorum and bipartisanship, facilitated by Kilmer and others. The committee has also held bipartisan retreats with the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth.
In order to make ModCom a shining example of the principles it hopes to instill, Kilmer also had members sit in mixed arrangement and share staffers. “If we wanted things to work differently in Congress,” he said, “we had to do things differently.”
The House voted to extend the committee’s term through the 116th Congress and then the 117th. In February, it was recreated as a subcommittee. This month, ModCom received the American Bar Association’s Frank E.A. Sander Award in recognition of extrajudicial conflict resolution.
This is a welcome victory for bipartisanship and civil discourse. Hopefully, the committee will continue to help restore integrity to the hallowed halls of the first branch. We need it.
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