Kilmer tries to help everyone get along

Many Americans are fed up with politicians in Washington, D.C. and feel lawmakers spend too much time tweeting shots at each other rather than working on legislation to help the country.

National polls bear that out: Congress’s approval rating was a dismal 18% in a recent Gallup poll. A wisecrack making the rounds captures how many feel about legislators on Capitol Hill: “Did you hear about the hurricane that went through Washington, D.C. today? It caused $100 billion worth of improvements.”

There’s a group of congressional lawmakers, however, who are trying to change that. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing Kitsap’s 6th Congressional District, heads up one of Congress’s most usual committees. The U.S. House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been given the task of trying to make Congress run better. Kilmer prefers to refer to the group, which he chairs, as the “Fix Congress” committee.

“When we say we have a committee that’s trying to fix Congress, people generally will either giggle a little bit or offer to pray for us,” the 48-year-old Kilmer said with a laugh. It seems the only thing conservatives and liberals can agree on is that Congress is broken.

Improving civility and collaboration is one of their goals. The inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together is what many Americans believe is most in need of repair.

While serving in the state Legislature between 2005-12 — first in the House and then the Senate — Kilmer recalled that the parties worked together. “The amount of time that is consumed by political ‘bull’ is significantly different [in Washington, D.C.] during floor debate to score political points or make a political statement rather than to make a law,” the Gig Harbor congressman said.

To try to adopt that culture in D.C., the committee reached out to experts in organizational psychology, conflict resolution, strategic negotiations and cultural change. Members talked to consultants and coaches tasked with turning losing teams into winning ones, Kilmer said. “Our goal was to learn from people with deep experience in working through various forms of dysfunction,” he said.

The reform committee’s goal was not to change anyone’s political beliefs but rather tweak some of the systems that steer members toward conflict rather than consensus, Kilmer said.

For example, the bipartisan group recommended that Congress change the orientation process new members go through. “One of the problems was [new lawmakers] were basically divided from the beginning. You have members literally being told, ‘Hey, Democrats, get on this bus. Republicans, get on that bus.’

The committee also recommended lawmakers go on a retreat and set goals. “I have never been part of an organization, until I got to Congress, that didn’t define what they want to get done. There is no bipartisan conversation around goal setting as an institution,” Kilmer said. The recommendation for a bipartisan retreat was adopted and is on its way to being implemented, he reported.

To promote collaboration, the modernization group also recommended that space be set aside near the House floor where a Democrat and a Republican can sit and chat. “Right now, other than on the House floor, there is not bipartisan space within the institution for a Democrat and a Republican to actually talk to each other.”

What helps keep Congress moving is staff who research issues, which can influence how the lawmaker votes. But keeping staff has been difficult and has contributed to the disorder in Congress. There has been an enormous turnover, Kilmer reported. “This makes it harder to solve big problems for the American people,” he said.

To solve D.C.’s “brain drain” and help retain knowledgeable personnel, the committee recommended — and eventually arranged for — staff pay to no longer be limited to what their boss earns.

In a related matter, the “fix it” committee has asked Congress to use new technology to schedule committee meetings so that fewer of them are held at the same time. “Members of Congress on not whizbang tech geeks,” Kilmer admitted.

The Modernization Committee practices what it preaches, Kilmer said, as the group agreed to hire just a single staff and it isn’t dominated by the party in power — each six members.

The way committee members conduct hearings is also unique. “Successful meetings don’t say we are going to have one set of people who think one way sit on one side of the room and folks who believe in another set of things sit on the other side. In our committee, we stagger our seating so that everybody is sitting next to someone from a different party,” Kilmer explained.

Historically, special committees have failed to get much done, but the “Fix Congress” committee has passed more than 140 recommendations. Over two-thirds of them have either been implemented or are on that path, Kilmer said.

Kilmer has chaired the committee since its inception four years ago. But as relevant as the mission of the committee may seem in these toxic times of partisan politics, the committee has failed to attract much media coverage. Kilmer reported he has been booked on cable news 10 times to talk about the “Fix Congress” committee and every appearance has been canceled.

The Modernization committee, formed in 2019 with bipartisan approval, was originally slated to last one year. Congressional leaders, however, believed the committee was making progress, so its lifespan was extended a number of times. Following the mid-term elections, the fate of the reform group will be decided by whichever party becomes the majority in the House.

Since the committee formed when Trump was president, even if the GOP takes back the majority that doesn’t mean the end of the panel.

“Everybody wants this. Listen, there are people that want to burn down Congress, but I think [generally] the people here want to improve the institution.”