Modernizing Congress to Meet Public Expectation
As the drumbeat on impeachment rages, 12 members of Congress have been quietly doing something extraordinary — even revolutionary. Democrats and Republicans have been shoving aside party differences to focus on one of the most pressing issues facing America: how to reform and rebuild Congress. This unique example might provide a path forward after the impeachment process for healing our division.
From the ballooning national debt to our crumbling roads and bridges, many of the biggest challenges facing our country could be resolved by decisive and bipartisan action by Congress. Yet year after year, voters are dismayed by a lack of progress and frustrated by the dysfunction.
But since January, the members of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, led by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Tom Graves (R-Ga.), have been hashing out solutions to make Congress more transparent, more efficient and armed with the important information they need to make wise decisions.
It isn’t an easy task. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, reaching across the aisle is harder than ever. So the Select Committee strives to ensure bipartisan consensus. The group is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, 6-6. The committee members have forged bonds with those who would otherwise be regarded as political rivals, having late-night dinners together, attending retreats, sharing details about their families, their districts and what inspired them to enter politics. In the process, they have realized they had more in common than they would have initially thought. Most importantly, they share a deep desire to make Congress work for the American people.
As former legislators with a combined 28 years in Congress, we fully understand the inconsistencies and inefficiencies that plague the first branch of government. Congress is beset by arcane and irregular procedures; many protocols seem to be holdovers from 25, 50, or even 100 years ago. We also understand the power of extending a hand across the aisle. During our public service, we put aside our political differences to work together on key initiatives and developed a friendship in the process.
The members of the Select Committee comprehend the challenge of bipartisanship. They hail from diverse backgrounds with expertise in logistics, entrepreneurship, education and the military. For example, Congressman Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, founded and ran a small business for many years before heading to Capitol Hill. Congresswoman Susan Brooks, a Republican from Indiana, brings decades of experience as a defense attorney, mayor of Indianapolis and as a U.S. attorney.
Over months of sometimes contentious meetings, the committee has crafted initial solutions that are neither flashy nor glamorous. But they are concrete actions that can restore the public’s trust in Congress. For example, the Committee recommended creating a portal that enables the public to easily check a legislator’s voting record. Another recommendation would facilitate tracking changes to a bill – just as workers track changes in a shared document – so that voters can quickly see how, when and by whom a piece of legislation was written. Other proposals would standardize how bills are written, encourage talented and diverse American workers to seek jobs as Congressional aides and create a system to easily identify lobbyists. Even more significantly, Rep. Pocan and Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.) are collaborating on reforms to scheduling which would help bring Congress into the digital age and the Internet world.
As the committee’s name implies, members are charged with updating and transporting Congress into the 21st century. To that end, they urge the resurrection of what was known as the Office of Technology Assessment, which advised legislators for two decades on matters as diverse as emerging technology, hazardous materials and the utilization of nuclear weapons. The office provided detailed and unbiased technical information in many fields of expertise, enabling Congress to fully understand the costs and benefits of proposed legislation. Since that office was shuttered in 1995, members of Congress have lacked critical counsel on complicated technological developments, including pressing issues of cybersecurity, online privacy, and internet safety. As we increasingly hear reports that not only Russia, but Iran and China, are attempting to influence our elections, understanding technology is increasingly urgent for our legislators. The restoration of the technology office would arm them with the information they need to address these emerging threats and new challenges in social media and science, from artificial intelligence to potential regulation of technology.
Some of the committee’s recommendations appear to be such common sense that the American people might find it bewildering that they are not already Congressional protocol. American workers and businesses must be punctual and productive. As previously mentioned, mismatched schedules often lead to competing committee meetings, multiple delays and frequent interruptions. Consequently, the Committee is considering procedures to streamline scheduling, prevent delays and boost efficiency.
As we talk with fellow citizens today, we frequently hear animosity directed at Congress. Why can’t they break through the gridlock? Why don’t they take action on bipartisan solutions that most Americans support? We believe the work of the Select Committee will pave the way for much needed progress that can revolutionize the workings of Congress. The committee’s work will not only move Congress out of the 19th century but ensure that it represents the very best of the American promise for decades to come, works to solve problems for our country, and rebuilds the trust that is vital to a great republic.