Changing Congress as America changes

Note: This piece first appeared on the Federalist Society’s “Modernization of Congress” blog

Working in Congress both as a Senate staffer and Member from Indiana solidified my long-held belief that our first branch of government serves as the true reflection of the needs, dreams, and aspirations of the American people. There is simply no other way to ensure our mutual hopes for democratic representation of all 330 million citizens, especially with the rich diversity of our culture and politics. As the United States experiences tumultuous change from a pandemic, severe economic dislocation, racial protests, and another technology revolution, Congress must not only keep up with these challenges, but attempt to be transformative in its leadership.

However, Congress has not only lagged behind the pace of change, but it has become increasingly detached and distant from the American people it seeks to serve — dysfunctional in its work and disconnected from solving our nation’s most pressing problems. It is long past time for us to reinvigorate this fundamental American institution and restore public confidence in Congress’ ability to connect to constituents and get things accomplished.

This requirement for prompt action is why I am encouraged at the progress made in relatively short order by the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Led by Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Vice Chairman Tom Graves (R-GA), the Committee has studied many of the challenges facing the institution — from the massive surge in constituents seeking individualized assistance to the breakdown of bipartisan working relationships — and has already passed nearly 30 bipartisan recommendations to address many problems. These include reforms to improve transparency in the legislative process, constituent communications, and opportunities for genuine bipartisan collaboration within Congress.

We are entering a decade where it is essential for government to address issues and propose solutions, therefore much more needs to be done to repair this institution, and both parties must work together in this crucial mission.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for a strong and resilient first branch that can function effectively, even during times of national crisis. This will require important institutional reforms and sustained investment in several key areas, namely: assuring staff expertise and diversity, improving the legislative schedule and its efficiency while in session, and ensuring continuity of congressional operations during times of national crisis.

Improving Staff Expertise & Diversity: Capitol Hill offices employ thousands of dedicated and energetic staffers who empower the first branch of government to respond to and advocate for the needs of their constituents. However, low pay is a barrier to many bright, competent potential staffers who simply cannot afford to work for Congress and live in Washington DC, much less compete with the private sector pay scale. 

This barrier creates a brain drain and deprives Congress of much-needed expertise — staffers in key positions tend to be younger and turn over faster than it takes to get through one session of Congress. It also inhibits staff diversity, both in terms of their racial or ethnic backgrounds, but also key attributes like military experience. No matter how hardworking and empathetic congressional staff may be, when their life experiences do not mirror those of the rest of the population, Members of Congress face yet another major barrier to solving the nation’s complex problems in a broadly acceptable way. This reinforces the perception that Congress is out of touch with average people and unable to address constituent problems.

The Select Committee on Modernization, working with House leadership and the Committee on House Administration, has already taken some important steps to increase staff diversity and retention. These include establishing a permanent, bipartisan Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the House and recommending mechanisms to improve staff training and human resources. The Select Committee should go further and examine how to ramp up member and committee expertise — including the number of staff with real-world and technical knowledge of subjects like economic competitiveness, technology, cybersecurity, and healthcare — as well as study ways to improve the “staffing pipeline” to ensure a more diverse slate of Americans can join the ranks of congressional staff.

Efficiency in the Legislative Schedule: It is no secret that the congressional schedule is a chaotic mess. Members openly ridicule the congressional system and compare it to private sector efficacy. Members and their staff are, on a daily basis, forced to choose which committee hearings, business meetings, and constituent meetings to attend, due to overlapping and uncoordinated demands on their time. In turn, this diminishes the ability of members to debate, craft, and advance policies to address the needs of the American people. The Select Committee should recommend changes to the House schedule that allow members to maximize the time spent on thoughtful policymaking while in Washington, rather than spending a few minutes at one committee hearing before rushing to the next simply to record their attendance. Schools and colleges use block scheduling so students do not have overlapping classes and can spend a full period focused on each subject. Surely the House can develop a similar system that will allow members to dedicate time to their separate committees and thus the important issues facing Americans.

Ensuring Continuity of Congress in Times of Emergency: COVID-19 has served as a rude awakening to the first branch. Within a matter of days, congressional leaders and their staff were required to completely rethink how to accomplish their legislative duties in the pandemic environment. Congress as a whole needs to debate and prepare emergency operating procedures now. A leader on this front, the Select Committee has already issued strong, bipartisan recommendations to maintain continuity of operations, which the House should adopt as soon as possible. These include requiring continuity plans for each congressional office, guidelines for crisis communications to ensure effective outreach to constituents, and up-to-date technology and processes for staff to telework. Adopting contingency plans should not be intended to replace Member to Member contact or people to people interaction, but to prepare us for future catastrophes. With counsel from our nation’s leading health, technology, and security experts, the Select Committee should continue to examine how Congress can effectively respond to constituents, protect sensitive data and deliberations, and operate smoothly in an emergency. Congress must reassure the American people that the work of the legislative body will not stop when the next crisis arrives, whether it comes from a virus like COVID-19 or a cyber attack.

In a time of national uncertainty and deep dissatisfaction with our political institutions, it is more crucial than ever for Congress to reflect the needs and aspirations of the American people. The Select Committee on Modernization has made significant progress towards improving the people’s House but the work must be expedited and expanded given the scope of the issues facing the country. The Select Committee should be extended past the end of this year so that it may continue to promote transformative, bipartisan changes within Congress and enable the first branch to reassert itself as our nation’s primary governing body. The health of and confidence in our representative democracy depend on success.