Relations between the parties in Congress have deteriorated so badly that lawmakers overseeing an effort to modernize the institution are even considering bringing in a marriage counselor to patch things up.
The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which the House created in 2019 and extended through the 117th Congress, has made easing polarization on Capitol Hill a top goal for the panel.
“Last Congress we had a lot of structural and procedural and institutional recommendations,” said Committee Vice Chair Rep. Will Timmons (R-S.C.) in an interview. “We both want to focus on something that isn’t really in that category. It’s how do we make people work together, and I think that’s probably the most important thing.”
The panel’s head, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), who also participated in the interview, said he has spent the last several weeks calling non-political experts for their advice, including a marriage counselor, an organizational psychologist, and corporate culture consultants. “Is there a way to foster culture change in an institution with 435 independent contractors?” he asked.
The push to defuse tensions comes as partisanship in Congress has reached a new peak following a contentious election and the Jan. 6 mob invasion of the Capitol. While Democrats control both chambers, slim majorities mean bipartisan support is needed to overcome procedural hurdles in the Senate on contentious matters such as voting rights, immigration and gun control.
ModCom, as the committee is called, has already produced 97 recommendations including some the House embraced, such as a limited use of earmarks, making permanent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and incorporating technology into the chamber’s day-to-day operations.
When the panel of six Democrats and six Republicans was first established, Timmons said he and others avoided trickier issues because they thought they only had a year. The result was a series of unanimously approved recommendations. This time around, Timmons said he hopes to tackle harder issues, and he’s willing to pay the price of not getting every single member on board.
“I fully expect we will not have unanimity on something this Congress,” he said. “If we don’t have at least one vote where someone is like ‘I can’t support this,’ I would be unhappy.”
Despite its accomplishments, the committee has been unable to reduced partisan tensions in Congress. Some Democrats said they wouldn’t work with any Republican who encouraged the rioters at the Capitol. Others vowed to avoid any of the 139 House Republicans who had voted to object to the election results.
Republicans have been angered by Democrats making it harder for them to offer their proposals through the motion to recommit. They have retaliated by calling for lengthy roll calls on bills, including Post Office namings, that previously flew through on voice votes.
Democrats also took the unprecedented step of stripping a member of the other party, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene(R-Ga.), from her committee assignments partly due to comments she had made supporting conspiracy theories. Republicans have hinted they will retaliate if they win the majority.
Advocacy groups have made recommendations for how the House can ensure legislation is more bipartisan, but Kilmer said a culture change is needed as well.
“A lot of the activity on the floor is designed for attack ads, those ‘gotcha’ moment,” he said. “That’s not a rules issue, that’s a norms issue.”
Kilmer and Timmons said one starting point is several recommendations that the committee approved last year: creating a bipartisan members-only space in the Capitol and having bipartisan retreats for lawmakers and their families at the start of each Congress. The House has carried out neither recommendation.
Beyond finding a solution to partisan bickering, the committee has a wide ranging agenda. At a recent hearing, advocates discussed diversity, staff retention, roadblocks preventing constituents from engaging with their lawmakers and vice versa, and ensuring Congress can continue to function in the event of a global pandemic, or a rioting mob.
Some issues will be carried over from the 116th Congress. Timmons said he’s still interested in finding a way to have lawmakers stay in Washington over the weekend, which could help foster relationships between the members, but lacks support from some members on both sides of the aisle.
A chunk of the committee’s time in the next two years will be putting in place all the recommendations from the previous Congress – plus any new ones the committee approves.
The recommendations from the previous Congress are in various stages of implementation. The House approved some items dealing with technology and accessibility in a March 2020 resolution. Others were included in the rules for the 117th Congress.
Even though the committee has received several extensions, Kilmer and Timmons said they are working as if the next two years will be all the time they have left.
“My campaign slogan was Washington is broken,” Timmons said. “To spend my first four years trying to fix Congress is just a dream come true.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org