A Conversation with U.S. Congressman Derek Kilmer

The 6th District Democrat has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2013. 


U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, center, represented the 26th district in the state House 2005-07 and state Senate 2007-13. Courtesy Derek Kilmer

Rep. Derek Kilmer took time over the Fourth of July holiday to talk with KP News about his hopes for both this and the other Washington.

Describing himself as a “genetically hopeful person,” he focused on the three areas that keep him hopeful: his position as a member of the Appropriations Committee to help bring meaningful funding to his district, opportunities to collaborate across party lines, and the casework his staff does to directly improve the lives of his constituents.

“Appropriations (is) where decisions are made about where the money gets spent. Serving on that committee puts me in a position to have an impact on stuff that matters to the region,” he said. “I generally look through the lens of what will help create more economic opportunity for more people in more places.

“For example, a big part of our economy and a big part of our environmental value is Puget Sound recovery and recovery of our salmon populations,” Kilmer said. “Unfortunately, the president’s budget proposed very deep cuts to both of those programs. But because I sit on Appropriations, I am in a position to have an impact. In the House bill not only did we eliminate the cuts, but we increased the budget by 18 percent.”

"I have learned that I know very little."

Kilmer also secured funds for expanding broadband services, “which is really about providing economic opportunity and improving educational opportunity specifically focused on rural areas and bridging that digital divide.” The bill also expanded investments in clean energy research that he said would both protect the environment and create jobs.

The Senate has not yet passed its version of the appropriations bill, and once it is passed the two bodies of Congress will negotiate. “Being able to start the conversation, where we start ahead of the game is really, really valuable,” Kilmer said. “My hope is that the outcomes in the House bill will be the same or close to the final product after negotiations.”

As for collaboration, Kilmer called the current Congress a “fixer-upper.”

“Things aren’t working,” he said. “There is far too much partisan bickering and not enough progress. And that has shaped how I approach this job. I now co-chair a group called the Bipartisan Working Group.” The group of 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats meets weekly, he said. The meetings have three parts. First, each member discusses what they are working on and makes a pitch to collaborate. Then they discuss what is going on in Congress that week. “And those can be spicy conversations and people can have sharp elbows. But good government is like a good marriage. You don’t necessarily agree on everything, but you have to be able to talk and listen to each other. Every interaction can’t turn into the Jerry Springer Show,” Kilmer said.

The third part of the meeting focuses on finding common ground on big issues. Some of the bills Kilmer has sponsored have come from that group, including a Veterans Affairs reform bill and the first bipartisan campaign reform bill in more than a decade.

Kilmer has also participated in the Civility Caucus, which provides visits with representatives from disparate districts to get to know each other’s issues firsthand. As an example, Steve Womack, from a conservative district in Arkansas, came to tour the Port of Tacoma and Hurricane Ridge and spoke to people working there. At the end of the visit Womack said, “Seeing those things up close and personal made me understand why these things are important to you—they are important to your community and its economy.”

Kilmer was recently asked to chair a new committee, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. “Every two to three decades Congress realizes things aren’t working the way they ought to, and they create a committee to try to do something about it,” he said. “The committee is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats and we are charged with making Congress more efficient, more modern and more functional.” They have already passed a set of recommendations to improve transparency, making it easier for people to track legislation and what is going on at federal agencies, and how representatives are voting in Congress and in committees.

“Lost in all the noise on cable news is the fact a lot needs to be done to make people’s lives better,” Kilmer said. “My hope is that even in the midst of election politics there are ripe opportunities.” Prescription drug prices, protections for pre-existing medical conditions, infrastructure including roads and broadband are all issues that President Trump has said are priorities. Kilmer hopes to see forward motion in these areas.

Casework, Kilmer said, is the third part of his job that makes him hopeful. “Half of our office staff in the district does casework.” Anyone who has an issue with a federal agency can contact the office, and the staff goes to work on their behalf. Most often the problems are with the VA, Medicare, Social Security or the IRS.

Kilmer declined to make any predictions about the next two years. “I have learned that I know very little,” he said. But he continues to love his job. “My focus from the beginning has been to make sure the government works for everyone no matter which zip code you live in. My district still has a lot of areas that continue to struggle economically.”