House Modernization Leaders Have High Hopes for Tech Proposals, Even as Committee Disbands

Efforts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Congress—particularly through the adoption of technology-based solutions—will have a meaningful impact on the legislative process moving forward, according to the bipartisan leaders of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. 

The select committee, which was initially created in January 2019 to recommend solutions for improving congressional operations and services, held its final business meeting on Thursday and is set to disband at the end of the current Congress. Helmed during the 117th Congress by Chair Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Vice Chair William Timmons, R-S.C., the committee has approved 202 recommendations over its four-year existence—with 42 that have been fully implemented and 88 that have been partially implemented—to modernize House technologies and services, improve the legislative process, recruit and retain diverse staffers, enhance constituent relations and foster bipartisanship.

In a conversation with Nextgov, Kilmer and Timmons discussed their collective work on the committee during the 117th Congress, including how efforts to enhance congressional tech capabilities will improve the legislative process, as well as their hope that Congress will continue to prioritize modernization efforts moving forward.

“I think the Modernization Committee has shown the best Congress has to offer in terms of bipartisan relationship-building, working together for a common purpose, getting results and seeing those results put into action,” Timmons said. “It really has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my entire life.”

Whether it’s proposing the creation of systems to track and manage constituent requests, calling for House digital applications to be made open source by default or recommending the creation of a process to institutionalize congressional technologies, the committee has worked to introduce innovative solutions to Congress over the course of its existence. 

And while the committee’s work has largely focused on improving House-related services, one of its recommendations during the 117th Congress called for the House and Senate to “work to align more of their technology standards and processes.” 

“Although the House and Senate have different procedures, there’s a lot of room to facilitate more communication between the two chambers,” Kilmer said, citing the creation of the recently launched House Digital Service—designed to improve lawmakers’ access to enhanced technology solutions—as “an avenue for that.”

“There are all sorts of technology recommendations we’ve made that serve members, that serve the institution, and, most importantly, in the end, that serve our constituents,” Kilmer added. 

Earlier this month, the committee announced that its second recommendation from the 116th Congress—a proposal for a new system that would make it easier to “track how amendments change legislation and the impact of proposed legislation to current law”—had been implemented, along with seven other recommendations. 

Kilmer cited the creation of the “Comparative Print Suite”—as the system is known—as an example of a platform that will improve the legislative process, by allowing members and staffers “to see how a bill would impact current law, as well as to see how different versions of bills compare, which is currently a really painstaking and far less transparent process.” 

Efforts to improve the way the House schedules committee meetings and votes also received particular attention from the committee, which has emphasized the creation of a more streamlined system to cut down on conflicts. One of the final recommendations that the committee approved on Thursday was that “House rules or policies should require entering of committee meeting times into the shared committee scheduling tool,” which built on a previous committee recommendation from the 116th Congress to create “a common committee calendar portal.”

Timmons, who has made reforming the congressional calendar and schedule one of his top priorities on the committee, said that “right now, everybody does their own thing, and that kind of facilitates this mess.” He views the effort, currently being pushed forward by the House Administration Committee, as a long overdue measure.

“The first step is just getting all the information there and creating a platform that can take it all,” Timmons said. “And then the next step is to explain to people that it’s worth just creating these scheduling blocks to deconflict. And that will allow us to actually spend time legislating as opposed to bouncing around.” 

Beyond introducing more technological solutions into the policymaking process, the committee has also focused on bridging partisan divides in Congress. Fourteen of the panel’s recommendations in the 117th Congress centered around encouraging civility and bipartisanship between lawmakers and staffers. 

Kilmer, who has led the committee for the past four years—first alongside former Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., during the 116th Congress, and alongside Timmons during the 117th Congress—said the committee has worked to abide by its proposals regarding bipartisanship.

“We were a committee that has sort of walked the walk when we’ve made recommendations that committees should function in a certain way,” he said, citing the fact that the panel shares an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and relies on a combined, bipartisan staff.

Kilmer said that some of the bipartisan-focused recommendations the committee has proposed—such as using technology tools to facilitate lawmaker collaboration on legislation, hosting bipartisan group events and creating bipartisan co-working spaces for staffers—“can change how the institution functions for the better.” 

But even as the committee’s authorization is set to expire in just a few weeks, members of the panel have already taken steps to ensure that their modernization efforts continue. Two of the recommendations voted on during Thursday’s business meeting called for the establishment of a modernization subcommittee on the House Administration Committee, as well as for the House to reconstitute the select committee “at least every fourth Congress.”

With Republicans set to take control of the House next year, Timmons said he had “a pretty high degree of confidence” that the recommendations to continue the committee’s work will move forward.

“I don’t know if a subcommittee on House Administration would necessarily make recommendations,” Timmons added. “But while we have done a lot of work on implementation, we have the potential to implement everything over the next year or two. And that’s going to be a lot of work.” 

Kilmer agreed with Timmons about the future of the committee’s recommendations, saying that the panel’s members want to ensure that all of the remaining proposals move toward implementation.

“We don’t want to produce a final report that just sits up on a shelf,” Kilmer said. “We want to make sure that there is a member-led entity that’s focused on implementation of these recommendations.”

He added that the proposal to reconstitute the select committee on a periodic basis arises from the need for Congress to stay up-to-date with changing technologies and solutions. 

“The last committee that looked at these issues was in 1993,” Kilmer said, referring to the Joint Committee on The Organization of Congress. “And, as the pace of change accelerates, Congress needs to evaluate itself at more regular intervals than that.”

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