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The Sausage Factory

“Go Big Or Go Home”

There’s a new committee in town and it’s got tall orders: fix Congress.

The new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is helmed by Washington Democrat Rep. Derek Kilmer who told Roll Call that he wants to hear ideas – from whomever has something to offer. The committee, he said in an article, “is an acknowledgment that Congress could work better for the voters who send lawmakers here.”

There are many in Washington, DC, who believe that to work better, Congress has to hire more staff. Attracting and retaining competent staff, and even allowing Members to hire additional aides, will allow Congress to carryout critical legislative functions, especially holding the Executive Branch accountable. Greater congressional capacity will allow the Legislative Branch to serve the public more effectively, but at the same time, doing so could actually further imperil public esteem of Congress.

That’s why Congressional Institute President Mark Strand said the Select Committee shouldn’t limit itself to small-ball. Strand also spoke with Roll Call reporter Kate Ackley. From the article:

“They should aim big,” said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, who has shared with the committee relevant white papers his group has put together on how to overhaul the legislative branch.

He’s prodding the committee to make suggestions about overhauling the budget process — he suggests a two-year, instead of the current one-year, cycle — and restoring congressionally directed spending, otherwise known as earmarks.

House members have given the new panel, Strand added, broad jurisdiction but not a lot of authority. The committee can’t offer legislation, for example.

“This is a problem for them, but it’s also kind of a blessing,” he said. “They can call attention to the big issues, and then they can go to the leadership and say, ‘let’s expand this.’”

While there is no corresponding committee in the U.S. Senate, the one in the House is bipartisan – six Republicans, six Democrats. There are two freshmen from each party, along with Members who sit on the Committee on House Administration and on the Rules Committee. The representatives from House Administration happen to be the Chair and Ranking Member, so should the Select Committee decide to act on congressional staff or look at improving technology, the Committee that has jurisdiction over those matters would already be part of the conversation.

As Strand pointed out, though, the committee doesn’t have the authority to propose legislation, and any recommendation it does make must be approved by two-thirds of its members. That’s a tough hurdle, but it’s not impossible. And it’s a task that Kilmer hopes the committee is up to. As he told Roll Call:

“Every time you see a bill written behind closed doors, every time you see a shutdown, or when things in D.C. feel too close to the Jerry Springer Show, it erodes public trust in the process,” he added.

To read the Congressional Institute’s white papers, go here.

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