January 09, 2019

Wednesday Q+A With Rep. Derek Kilmer

The chair of the congressional reform committee on how to fix what's "bonkers" about the body.

Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington chairs the new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which will issue a report at the end of 2019 on how the legislative branch can improve its functioning. Kilmer spoke with Alex Clearfield about how Congress should address staffing issues, the technology deficit, and shared services.

What would you say are the biggest issues the committee needs to look at?

The House is a fixer-upper, and that’s evidenced every time a bill is written behind closed doors or passed without debate. Increasingly there are concerns Congress is diminished and not stepping up as a coequal branch of government. Every 20 or 30 years or so [1945, 1965, and 1992], there’s a committee of this kind created to look at how to modernize the institution, and that’s an acknowledgment that like any other functional organization, it’s worth diagnosing from time to time what’s working and what isn’t, with the hope that there can be outcomes that help restore the institution.

Now that money has been made available in the members’ representational allowance to pay interns, is the next step increasing MRAs to raise entry-level staff salaries?

I don’t want to presuppose the outcome, but one of the things we’re directed to look at is issues around staff recruitment and retention, as well as staff diversity. Those are important issues that are going to get a good look by this committee. … There’s a lot of members who have potential ideas about reforms to the institution. Even as we voted on the rules, I had members come up to me and say, “I have some ideas.” And beyond that, we’ve heard from think tanks, folks in academia, who have said, “We want to play a constructive role in this too.” … There will be no dearth of issues for us to look at. And I would note this committee was set up with equal membership for Democrats and Republicans, and that is an acknowledgment that for reform to happen it has to be in a bipartisan way.

What have been some ideas you’ve heard from your colleagues?

There’s been a few suggestions on use of technology. In the run-up to the rules package, there were some ideas that need a bit more cooking. A few members have raised issues around scheduling and the calendar.

What value does giving freshmen two of the 12 committee spots bring?

I’ve only been in Congress for six years; there may be people on the committee who have served longer, and there’s real value in having people who have just come in who are able to say, “Hey, why does it work like this?” … People bring diverse backgrounds. They come from local and state government, private industry. What we’re really talking about is organizational effectiveness. We have a terrific, diverse class of people who have a diverse array of backgrounds. … The new members have been out on the hustings for a year or two, and part of the reason House Democrats are focusing on reform out of the gate is that's what the American people are clamoring for.

There seems to be a technology deficit among members of Congress, in terms of understanding how it works. What are some ways members can bring themselves and their offices into the 21st century?

This is an important issue to do somewhat of a deep dive on, both in terms of how technology is used and even how technological services are procured. Each office has a contract for technological services. It’s something brought up a fair amount over the years. … While Congress may be one of the longest-lasting legislative bodies, it’s not the only legislative body. Whether we end up engaging with state legislatures that have identified ways to service technology to raise productivity and improve communications, there’s opportunities there.

Offices on the Hill essentially operate as independent contractors, negotiating their own services and setting their own policies. Are there ways to streamline things so it’s not 535 different universes?

I have a lot of enthusiasm for the fact that it’s explicitly talked about, issues around things like shared services. That’s absolutely something we’ll take a good look at. I came out of a reasonably functional state legislature and there were a lot of things where I got to Congress and I thought, “Wow, that seems kind of bonkers.”

By:  Alex Clearfield
Source: The National Journal