While bitter partisan clashes over impeachment were consuming Capitol Hill, a small congressional task force quietly hammered out bipartisan plans to make the institution more efficient throughout the past year.
That work continued the day after the House impeached President Trump on a historically partisan vote, as the committee unanimously passed 16 recommendations, several of which focus on improving bipartisanship.
One of those civility-minded suggestions is to start having bipartisan retreats at the start of every new term for all members and their families.
They also look to foster more cooperation within the actual walls of the Capitol buildings by creating a “bipartisan members-only” space, blending some committee staff briefings, and urging “House-wide” bulk purchases on office supplies.
Seven of the latest recommendations focus on updating the rules on how members of Congress message their constituents, allowing for the rapid transformation of social media on the political landscape. It would also increase tracking on all member communications.
The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was created in January to tackle improvements to an institution that more than 70% of Americans find ineffective, according to Gallup.
Created by a 418-12 vote, the House panel got off to a uniquely bipartisan start with six members from each party make up the committee rather than giving the majority an advantage.
In November, the House voted to give the select committee another year to continue its work.
Getting an extension in Washington is usually a sign of low productivity, but Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, said the opposite is true in this case.
“The first part of this year demonstrated they can work with unanimity and consensus,” he said. “Now the extension allows them to go a little further and address bigger issues.”
Like the other newly created panel, which focuses on climate change, the modernization committee doesn’t have the authority to craft laws but can make recommendations to other committees.
However, 29 of the modernization committee’s recommendations are set to get a vote in a House resolution next year.
“The select committee decided to do something a little bit different this year in that, rather than just making recommendations that some times get enacted and sometimes don’t, we wanted to turn our recommendations into legislation,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, Washington Democrat and the Modernization Committee chairman, told The Washington Times.
The resolution address five areas in need of improvement: Human Resources, technology, accessibility to resources, access to documents, and improving members’ experience in Congress.
Mr. Strand said a large focus has been improving the behind-the-scenes operations of Congress, particularly with Human Resources including updating when staffers can get paid and creating an office of diversity.
There are also several recommendations to improve how the public interacts with and monitors Congress, including one to create a “legislation comparison project.” It would make it easier to track changes to laws, “without it seeming like it’s in a foreign language,” said Mr. Kilmer.
Additionally, the resolution calls for the House to create a centralized human resources program and to give reports to update the lobbying disclosure system. It also recommends cybersecurity training for both members and employees while streamlining feedback on tech vendors.
These 12 lawmakers are also looking to improve civility on Capitol Hill — going back to when new members arrive for orientation and which buses they sit on.
Going into 2020, Mr. Kilmer said there are two big “sticky but important” issues they want to tackle: reforming the budgetary system and improving the House’s scheduling issues.
“This calendar year Congress is going to be here 68 travel days, 67 full days,” he said. “So sometimes if you’re covering a committee and it seems like only half the people are there its because they’re in their other committee that is meeting at the same time because members are simply not here enough.”
As to why this committee is such a rare example of productive bipartisanship? Mr. Strand said it’s what members intend to come to Washington to do.
“The vast majority of members want to legislate. They don’t mind getting along with the other party,” he said. “This is a breath of fresh air.”