Kilmer still trying to ‘fix’ Congress partisanship woes

As recent events in the halls of the U.S. Congress have demonstrated, a disturbingly large number of legislators live to throw firebombs in the form of attention-getting tweets and personal attacks. The result is that those elected officials get nothing of substance accomplished.

But others, including U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing Kitsap County’s 6th Congressional District, eschew the headlines and instead work behind the scenes to tamp down partisanship. Kilmer’s latest project is one that won’t win him a seat on cable news programs. Instead, the congressman says his work aims to help fix parts of the dysfunction that has seeped into the legislative body in Washington, D.C.

Kilmer recently launched the bipartisan Fix Congress Caucus, which differs from congressional committees like the Appropriations or Homeland Security. Unlike a congressional committee, where members are appointed by House leadership, a caucus is a group of lawmakers who agree on their own to seek solutions to a particular problem.

“The rationale behind the creation of this caucus was the notion that every American deserves a Congress that works and is actually capable of solving the pressing challenges of our time. It creates a space for members of Congress and staff and civil society organizations to engage in important dialogue that is needed to strengthen the capability and integrity of Congress,” the Gig Harbor lawmaker said. “Our goal is to really reshape the institution to make it more capable of solving problems for the American people.”

The caucus was formed in September and attracted about 30 Democrats and Republicans. The group is expected to meet monthly. Experts will be invited to provide lawmakers insight on ways to improve the legislative body. The more members in the caucus, the better, Kilmer said. “That is actually important because you want to have more people who are engaged and involved in discussing how to make the institution function better.”

One way Kilmer hopes the caucus will improve Congress is to find ways to help Americans cut through federal bureaucratic red tape.

The 435 House members and 100 senators have offices in their home districts. Constituents contact the offices with problems they are having with federal agencies. How the staff in one office deals with an issue can differ from the approach taken in other congressional offices, Kilmer said. That can result in offices coming up with differing ways to solve the same problem.

Kilmer hopes the Fix Congress Caucus can find a way to collate the issues being raised in offices across the country. In doing so, he believes Congress can identify systemic problems. As an example, “I often hear from veterans who contact my staff seeking assistance dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The issues veterans in Kitsap County raise may be the same issues that veterans in Texas, California or Arkansas are raising.”

Kilmer believes compiling VA departmental issues raised in congressional offices will enable Congress to solve systemwide issues. “That’s something that the Fix Congress Caucus is going to champion,” Kilmer said.

Kilmer’s involvement with the Fix Congress Caucus is not the first time he has worked to make Congress a more responsive body. The new caucus grew out of Kilmer’s work on the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. That committee’s mission also was to make Congress more responsive. It was disbanded in 2022 when Republicans took control of the House.

That committee took steps to improve civility in Congress and tear down divisions between parties. The group proposed that lawmakers new to Congress from each political party attend orientation sessions together, not separately along party lines. Kilmer said the goal was to build working relationships early on between “blue” and “red” politicians.

Now, Kilmer is on the House Administration’s Subcommittee on Modernization, which is working to implement recommendations made by the previous Modernization of Congress Committee. In reflecting on his “Fix Congress” work, Kilmer insisted that it is important such efforts involve both parties. “The way you make lasting, impactful change is through bipartisanship,” he said. “At a time of increasing polarization, working together transcends political boundaries and speaks to the very essence of democratic governance.”