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September 26, 2023

A Tribute to the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, the 2023 Sander Award Winner

Grande Lum and Bruce Patton

Editor’s note: Named for long-time Harvard Law School professor Frank Sander, the Frank E.A. Sander Innovation in ADR Award was established to recognize innovative methods and extraordinary achievements in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution.

This May, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was recognized by the ABA Dispute Resolution Section for innovative dispute resolution methods and extraordinary achievement in its work as a committee. It is entirely fitting that the American Bar Association’s award named for dispute resolution pioneer Frank Sander should honor the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress and its leaders: Chair Derek Kilmer (a Democrat from Washington) and Vice Chairs Tom Graves (a Republican former representative from Georgia) and William Timmons (a Republican from South Carolina).

Dubbed “the most important committee you’ve never heard of” by the Washington Post, the Select Committee (known as “ModCom”) was authorized in 2019 by an overwhelming House vote of 418 to 12 for a term of one year. In a tradition of similar committees constituted roughly every 20 years since 1946, it was tasked with investigating, studying, holding hearings, and making findings and recommendations to make Congress more efficient and effective. A vast array of civil society organizations recognized the need for such a committee and championed its creation and operation. In 2018, our organization, the Rebuild Congress Initiative, facilitated a bipartisan series of conversations among mostly rank-and-file House members that resulted in a “Dear Colleague” letter proposing the creation of such a committee. The letter was signed by some of the House’s most conservative to most progressive members..

Due to its initial successes, the Select Committee was extended with overwhelming support to a full two-year term, and then again for a second two-year session of Congress. Its work continues today through the newly created Subcommittee on Modernization of the House Committee on Administration, under the leadership of Chair Stephanie Bice (R-OK).

Impact of the Committee

In its four years of service, the Select Committee made 202 recommendations, most of them adopted unanimously. To help ensure implementation, one of ModCom’s first process innovations was to issue rolling recommendations, roughly quarterly. As a result, more than 130 of its recommendations are already fully or partially implemented.

By way of example, ModCom has effectively advanced policies to improve staff expertise, retention, and diversity, and it introduced a framework to ensure transparency and accountability for congressionally directed investments in local communities. As a result of the Committee’s recommendation, a human resource one-stop shop hub was created for members, committees, and leadership staff. Upon the Committee’s recommendation, the member allowance for hiring congressional staff was increased, enabling more competitive salaries for staff with institutional knowledge and expertise to continue their service longer, and staff are now regularly surveyed re compensation, benefits, and conditions.

In addition to addressing civility, partisanship, and staff human resources issues, recommendations have been made and implemented in: (1) broadening internship and fellowship professionalization; (2) improving accessibility for those with disabilities; (3) adopting evidence-based policymaking; (4) strengthening Congressional oversight capacity; (5) modernizing district office operations, House office buildings, and the legislative process; (6) fostering Congressional continuity; (7) improving constituent engagement and services; and (8) bolstering House technology.

Much remains to be done, of course. The Committee’s report after just two years identified a host of further issues to address, including the role of money in politics (specifically campaign finance) and the budget and appropriations process. “The American people deserve a Congress that can get things done for them,” said Committee Chair Derek Kilmer. “The Modernization Committee is focused on improving Congress’ ability to solve problems, increasing civility and collaboration across ideology, and increasing constituent access to the legislative process. But our goal was not just to make recommendations. It was to make change. That’s why we’ve focused on seeing these recommendations get implemented.”

Methods to Sidestep Gridlock & Diminish Polarization

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress a critical and powerful role to pass laws, enact the nation’s budget, declare war, confirm presidential appointments, oversee the executive and judicial branches, and investigate matters of national importance. In the last sixty years, Congress has passed landmark legislation that profoundly shaped the nation, including the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, this century has seen sustained gridlock and increasing polarization in society as a whole and in Congress in particular. Congress had its lowest approval rate of nine percent in 2013, and it currently stands at just eighteen percent. A multitude of factors are at play, including increasing polarization and conflict in our culture and politics, incentivized demonization of the other side, and an age of disinformation that leaves us more vulnerable to manipulation. Elected officials are now more vulnerable to losing to candidates from the extreme wings of their party than to candidates from the political middle.

This context is what makes the work of the Select Committee so extraordinary. Chair Kilmer insisted that the Committee consist of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans with a two-thirds vote required to pass any single recommendation. The norm in other committees is for the majority party to have more seats, thus requiring a bare majority for passing votes. In every aspect of their work, ModCom took a different approach, credited by many to Chair Kilmer’s leadership.

The Committee understood that to get “things to work differently in Congress you had to do things differently in Congress.” Typically, committees split the budget (with the party in control getting two-thirds), and Republicans and Democrats each hire own-party staff. Chair Kilmer and Vice Chair Graves decided upfront to have only one shared staff. They would all wear “jerseys that say ‘let’s fix Congress’,” according to Kilmer.

In hearings, Committee members sat next to members from a different party, as opposed to the traditional approach of Republicans and Democrats on opposite sides of the room. Chair Kilmer noted that when you hear a good idea you want to turn to the person next to you to talk about it, and the seating arrangement ensured that Committee members would talk to each other. Through this arrangement, they achieved better dialogue and conversation.

Likewise, after a few hearings at the traditional dais, looking down at witnesses, the Committee decided instead to sit with witnesses at a round table to facilitate eye contact. The traditional five-minute statements with five minutes of questions from each member was abandoned in favor of an open discussion moderated by the chairs. Members could still use their five minutes at the end if needed, but it was rarely used. As a result, discussions went deeper and involved everyone interested.

The Committee began its work a bipartisan planning retreat. Chair Kilmer said the Committee defined success together and then made a plan to get there. The Committee also broke bread together as one group and brought in experts on civility and collaboration from multiple fields to address how to fix a broken culture, including political scientists, organizational psychologists, and sports coaches.

Changing the culture of any organization is difficult, and in an institution made up of 535 different offices, especially so. One idea the Committee recommended was to have new House members go through joint orientation activities, rather than spending most of their time in red and blue camps. Such an innovation alters communication and relationship dynamics from day one. As a result of this recommendation, over twenty bipartisan events and activities were held during new member orientation for the latest Congress, including a session on decorum and bipartisanship.

Feedback from Committee Members

Tom Graves, a Republican from Georgia and the Committee’s original vice chair, observed, “One of the things I value most about this committee is how different our backgrounds are, but that as Members we’ve united with a common goal to improve the way our legislative branch works. Committee Members hail from opposite sides of the country, with different professional backgrounds and life experiences. We’ve identified opportunities for bipartisan learning, found ways to better connect with our constituents, encouraged bipartisan Member retreats, and showed the American people that regardless of our political differences, a commitment to those we serve should come first.”

Vice Chair William Timmons, a Republican from South Carolina who took over after Graves retired from Congress, noted how important it was “to engage in evidence-based policy making in a collaborative manner from a position of mutual respect. We don’t do that [in Congress]. I’ve been in Congress for four years and five months. And outside of [this] committee, I have not done that.” He noted that in his experience, laws in the House were generally made available to members only at the very end of the process, when there is little time to read the legislation, and everyone just wants to get back to their districts. Timmons emphasized that it is not supposed to work that way. He identified the biggest challenge to working differently as trust, which requires relationship building. He attributed the Committee’s success to the time committed to building relationships and doing the work, the openness to ideas, and the willingness to challenge each other.

Rep. Kilmer expressed appreciation to the American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section for the recognition provided by the Frank Sander Award. “This recognition from the American Bar Association is a testament to the dedication exhibited by the Democrats and Republicans on our committee as we collaborated to build a Congress that works better for the American people.” Vice Chair Timmons struck a similar note, saying, “The work of this Committee has begun to fix Congress, and I could not be prouder of what we have accomplished on behalf of the American people.”

Take-Aways & Conclusion

In their introductory letter for the 2020 Final Committee Report, Representatives Kilmer and Graves noted, “We started by emphasizing bipartisanship at every level of our committee—we worked together not as Republicans or Democrats, but as colleagues. We shared our resources and staff, and continually sought out compromises that an overwhelming majority of our committee members could support. We engaged in tough discussions and didn’t allow our differences to block a path forward.”

The House Select Committee on Modernization of Congress is an exemplar for what is possible through working together differently—through improved communication, better understanding, and innovative dispute resolution. Their guiding principle was to make Congress work better for the American people. Our country is in a time of division while facing many tough issues, and the Committee showed us a path forward and what is possible if we work together.

Grande Lum

Director, Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program and the Gould Alternative Dispute Resolution Research Initiative at Stanford Law School

Grande Lum is director of the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program and the Gould Alternative Dispute Resolution Research Initiative at Stanford Law School. He is senior advisor to the Rebuild Congress Initiative, author of The Negotiation Fieldbook, and coauthor of America’s Peacemakers: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights. He can be reached at [email protected].

Bruce Patton

Cofounder, Rebuild Congress Initiative

Bruce Patton is cofounder of the Rebuild Congress Initiative, an independent and nonpartisan initiative of the Harvard Negotiation Project and Issue One. He is also cofounder and Distinguished Fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and a coauthor of Getting to YES and Difficult Conversations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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