Kilmer Brings Nerdy Consulting Tools to Task of Fixing House

  • Lawmaker likens Congress to head lice and Nickelback
  • Bipartisan committee to eye technology improvements

Derek Kilmer used to be the outside adviser governments hired to fix their flaws.

Now House Democrats have turned to this former McKinsey & Co. consultant, self-described nerd and Star Wars fanatic to bring their tradition-bound institution into the high-tech era.

The fourth-term congressman from Washington state heads the new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The House created the 12- member panel to tackle such issues as improving staff retention, upgrading technology and employing social media more effectively to communicate with constituents.

“I’m very conscious that I’m a member of an organization now that is less popular than head lice and Nickelback,” Kilmer said in an interview.

“Every time you see a bill written behind closed doors, every time you see the body sort of melt down, it erodes public faith,” he said. “I think part of our task is to look at where are areas that we can hopefully restore some of that faith.”

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) in his office in the Longworth Office Building (Photo by Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)

Shaking up institutions used to be Kilmer’s full-time job. At McKinsey he “helped businesses, non-profits, and government agencies run more efficiently,” according to the biography on his website.

Before making recommendations on how to make Congress more modern and efficient, he wants to look at operations of state legislatures, nonprofits, and the private sector.

“How have state legislatures looked at some of these issues?” he said. “The nonprofit sector, the private sector– a lot of these questions are not unique to the United States House of Representatives.”

The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was set up by the House rules package for the 116th Congress (H. Res. 6). The panel has until the end of 2019 to submit a report, which must be approved by two-thirds of the panel’s members.

The committee is equally divided between the two parties, which Kilmer, co-chair of the Bipartisan Working Group, said is crucial for lasting change. “To have structural reform it has to be bipartisan,” he said.

Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) called Kilmer “the perfect choice.”

“He’s got the temperament and has a history of working across the aisle,” said McGovern.

Meet the Chairman

“Derek is very bright and very able. He’s a real institutionalist,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in an interview. “He’s very active in the New Dems, which are very technologically focused, and he comes from Washington, which is a big tech state.”

Kilmer, 45, is a generation younger than Hoyer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

And it shows.

He decorated his Longworth Building office to give homage to his home-state sports teams and a movie that was major cultural influence on kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. A framed Darth Vader print is on one of the walls. Pez dispensers depicting Chewbacca and his Millennium Falcon crewmates are on the bookshelf (right above the Etch-a-Sketch toy).

The guy who never outgrew his love for Star Wars has serious credentials as well; before working for McKinsey, he earned degrees from Princeton and Oxford and served in Washington’s state legislature.

Kilmer’s vision for a more efficient Congress includes finding a way to retain senior staff.

“There’s literally not a position in the United States House where the median tenure is longer than four years,” he said. “In the absence of institutional capacity, what fills that void is lobbyists and the executive branch. And I think you’ve seen an erosion of capacity of the legislative branch.”

Franking Overhaul

Kilmer said he wants to look at how congressional franking — which lets lawmakers send newsletters and other communications to their constituents without paying for postage — could be adapted to social media and the Internet.

And he wants the congressional offices of the future to have up-to-date technology and data that’s secure from hackers.

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), said he shares Kilmer’s enthusiasm. “It’s important to give every member of the House access to new resources that will help them better serve their constituents,” he said in an emailed statement.

A print of Darth Vader hangs on the wall of the office of Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), a Star Wars fan. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)

With only a year to hold hearings and write recommendations, the committee will have to operate at hyperdrive speed to avoid the fate of other temporary panels, like the ones for multi-employer pension plan solvency and the federal deficit, both of which failed to reach consensus.

Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that works with Congress, said it might be hard for House members to defend spending more money to improve the Legislative Branch.

“If you do have a better paid legislative assistant who has more experience, it’s an intangible. It’s hard to demonstrate the value to the American public,” he said in a phone interview.

“What gives me hope is that there’s no partisan divide there,” Fitch said. “There is an appetite for improved efficiency in the institution.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Katherine Scott in Washington at kscott@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com