Ten years ago, then-state legislator Derek Kilmer considered running for Congress to replace the retiring Norm Dicks (D-6th), but he had some reservations. “I was conscious that if I was successful, I was signing up for a 3,000-mile commute and my kids were 3 and 6,” Kilmer said. “The other con was that I was going to Congress, and I was kind of repelled by it.
“Then I thought maybe that’s the reason to do it. Because it’s a mess and because I have kids and I don’t want their future affected by a completely messed up federal government.”
He won the race. “When I get on the plane, I write an email to my daughters about what I will be doing that week and why it matters to their future,” Kilmer said. The work he has done over the last four years as chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has given him much to write about.
In 2018 Kilmer got a call from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to ask if he would chair the new committee. “I don’t know if she considered anybody else,” Kilmer said. “She knew I was interested in strengthening Congress and making it work better, and I’m sort of a process nerd. It was a nice vote of confidence.”
Although the track record for committees to reform Congress in the past was dismal, he took up the challenge. “Like most Americans, I had the sense that Congress had been punching below its weight for a long time.”
The committee, with six Democrats and six Republicans, was initially scheduled to last for one year. Instead, the committee’s work continued through two congressional terms from January 2019 through December 2022. It produced more than 200 recommendations, nearly two-thirds of which are now fully or partially implemented.
In February Amanda Ripley, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, described the success of the committee as a story of shocking function. This May the committee won the Frank E.A. Sander Innovation in Alternative Dispute Resolution Award from the American Bar Association to recognize exceptional achievements and novel approaches to conflict resolution.
“One of the fundamental philosophies I have had since I got this job is if you want to get things to work differently in Congress, do things differently in Congress,” Kilmer said. That philosophy was reflected in how the committee was structured from its inception.
As he thought about how the committee would function, Kilmer thought about what he valued. “I would want to be listened to, I would want it to be collaborative and not antagonistic,” he said.
“The first big decision that we made was having joint staff, so that instead of putting on blue jerseys and red jerseys, let’s put on ‘Let’s Fix Congress jerseys,’ ” Kilmer said. His vice chair, Republican Tom Graves from Georgia, was game. The committee had a single website and a single Twitter account.
“The next big decision was a fundamental change,” Kilmer said. “Most often if you are in the majority, you set the terms. We had a bipartisan planning retreat and set the agenda through a collaborative process. That was really important because one of my key lessons was that it is hard to get people there for the landing if they haven’t been invited to the takeoff. This is not a game to be won. These are problems to be solved.”
They decided that recommendations needed to have at least eight of 12 votes to move forward. At hearings, rather than have the members sit on a dais above those testifying, everyone sat around a table, committee members sat intermingled rather than by party, and questioning was not based on seniority or subject to time limits.
“When I hear a witness that says something interesting, I lean over to the person sitting next to me and say, ‘That was pretty interesting, what do you think?’ In our committee, you would be leaning over to someone from a different party. We were at eye level with our witnesses. It is hard to foster a collaborative conversation when you are up on a dais and appear to be grilling rather than discussing.”
When the committee reconvened in early 2021 there were new challenges. There were new committee members following the 2020 election and the impact of the January 6 assault on the Capitol was fresh. After meeting with the new vice chair William Timmons, a Republican from South Carolina, Kilmer brought in an expert in conflict resolution to facilitate a conversation among all the members. “It didn’t make people all agree,” Kilmer said. “But everyone felt listened to and willing to engage with one another. To my knowledge that was the only place in Congress where that happened.”
Some of the recommendations from the committee focused on issues including scheduling processes, administrative efficiency, technology and innovation, and staff recruitment and retention. The committee also held four hearings on civility and collaboration.
Kilmer felt that recommendations in two areas are likely to be the most impactful.
First, the committee endorsed establishing a community benefit grant program that is transparent and allows community partners to submit grants to members of Congress to fund projects in their districts. “It is part of the power of the purse,” Kilmer said. “As well-intentioned as members of the executive branch are, I know my district and its needs better than someone sitting in a marble building 3,000 miles away.”
He is also enthusiastic about recommendations to make Congress better at recruiting and retaining staff. “One of the reasons lobbyists have too much to say in the process is that Congress self-lobotomizes,” Kilmer said. “The turnover is so high. Once someone develops expertise, they get lured off the hill and so when people watch a hearing, and it looks like Congress is out-gunned, there is a reason for that. We made a number of recommendations that I think will be really fruitful.”
With the midterm election and change to Republican leadership the dynamic in Congress has shifted. “There is a very slim majority and part of the deal that the speaker made in order to get the gavel was to agree to a number of things the very far right of the Republican conference asked for,” he said. “That has not really set the table for a great deal of bipartisanship.”
Kilmer still finds reason for hope. “It would have been easy, looking at the history of these special committees to say ‘Gosh, I’m really hosed,’ but that’s not how I roll.” He is concentrating on the implementation of the remaining recommendations from the committee.
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