Representative Derek Kilmer on Congressional Modernization and Transitions

December 7, 2020

Representative Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) is the chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan panel that has produced nearly 100 recommendations focused on improving the way Congress works. During this episode of Transition Lab, Kilmer joined host David Marchick to discuss the panel’s recommendations for increasing civility, bipartisanship and trust among members of Congress, helping new members transition from campaigning to governing and better preparing the institution for emergencies such as the ongoing pandemic.

Read the highlights:

Representative Kilmer described the goals of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Kilmer: “According to polling, Congress is less popular than colonoscopies and the rock band Nickelback. There is a sense that Congress is punching below its weight. So every two or three decades, Congress creates some sort of committee to look at how to fix [the legislative branch]. We’re the latest incarnation of that. …We were tasked with looking at things like House rules and procedures, technology and innovation, and the recruitment, retention and diversity of staff, and constituent communications. We also decided to look at things that weren’t directly in our mandate, including some of the dysfunction around the budget and appropriations process, [and] things like civility and continuity of government. Our committee members decided early on that we would have a North Star mission, and that mission is to make Congress work better for the American people.”

Kilmer discussed how the committee has embraced bipartisanship.

Kilmer: “Tom Graves, who serves as our vice chair, and I made a conscious decision to have a truly  bipartisan committee. …We said, “Let’s have one nonpartisan staff, one budget, one office, no red jerseys or blue jerseys.” …We hired our staff together—some of them were people with Democratic backgrounds, some with Republican backgrounds. …We would [also] meet regularly in private as a full committee. That meant we were allowed to have some honest conversations—and sometimes some really tough debates …We also experimented with mixed seating arrangements during our hearings. Rather than having Democrats sit on one side and Republicans sit on the other, we had Democrats and Republicans sit side by side. …None of that may sound like rocket science to you or to your listeners, but it’s really important in terms of how Congress functions.”

Kilmer discussed the committee’s work on emergency preparedness.

Kilmer: “We think it’s pretty important for Congress to adopt procedures in advance of emergencies, rather than in response to emergencies. …We recommended that the House update procedures to allow members to electronically add or remove their names as bill co-sponsors in 2020, and heading into 2021. …We also recommended that [congressional] committees establish telework policies, that member offices have continuity and telework plans in place, and that members of Congress get cybersecurity, telework and emergency preparedness training. …Congress does not have much in the way of emergency preparedness training. …The executive branch is way more prepared for crisis operations than Congress.”

Kilmer described the committee’s efforts to create better transitions for new members of Congress.

Kilmer: “A new member of Congress is really drinking out of the fire hose because they have to learn the job and get oriented to the job, [and] they have to hire both a Washington D.C. office and a district staff. …Our committee made some recommendations focused on changing that a bit so that orientation wasn’t just an Election Day through Jan. 3 exercise, but more [of a] real-time orientation. …We [also] made a recommendation that … [new congressional representatives] have a paid transition staffer.”

Kilmer described how Congress has navigated the need to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kilmer: “The capacity for committees to work remotely has generally been agreed to by both parties. The discussion around voting on the House floor has been unfortunately more partisan. There is now, in the House rules, the ability to vote by proxy. And you’ve seen a good number of members—either because of a medical condition, a concern about the rising number of cases, or because they have someone at home who might be high risk—vote by proxy. Unfortunately that has not been universally embraced within Congress.”

Kilmer explained what he’s learned about Congress during his time in office.

Kilmer: “I’ve learned a lot about why Congress works and why it doesn’t. You see very obvious instances of dysfunction, and I think some of it is related to the ability to constructively engage members of Congress. You know, the Kilmer family has a new puppy. Like many families, we got a pandemic puppy, an Australian shepherd. [She] is adorable, but I’ve discovered that if you don’t constructively engage Penny, she chooses the furniture. And that kind of happens in Congress too. When people don’t feel invested and engaged, they go to the furniture. They engage in things that contribute to incivility and contribute to dysfunction.”

Kilmer discussed the importance of fostering bipartisanship in the next Congress.

Kilmer: “I represent a district that needs government to work well, and that means we need to get some pucks into the net to help people, whether we’re talking about rebuilding our economy, or expanding access to healthcare or crushing this virus. My constituents actually need government to work. And that means legislation has to pass the House, pass the Senate and get signed by the president. …[So] we’re going to have to find common ground.”