Where Republicans and Democrats work together to ‘fix Congress’

An under-the-radar select committee recommends practical changes that can improve the way government work.

Julio Cortez/AP
The U.S. Capitol in Washington is seen to the right of the bottom part of the Washington Monument before sunrise in December 2019.

A bit of the spirit of Dolley Madison may be quietly at work within the U.S. Congress.

The wife of James Madison, a Founding Father and later the fourth president of the United States, she is often remembered as a gracious hostess. But the “presidentress,” as she was known, accomplished much more. 

Her popular social gatherings, called “squeezes” (for the crowds they drew), brought together the members of Congress in the early 19th century from both sides of the aisle. The deeper purpose: helping politicians get to know each other as individuals, not as anonymous enemies.

Today the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has taken up that task. Its wide range of interests has included recommending money-saving measures like bulk buying of office supplies, mandatory cybersecurity training for members, and even an overhaul of the budgeting process itself. 

But one of its most important functions may be as a low-key effort to reduce hostility between the parties.

Rather than having more members from the majority party, the committee’s membership is evenly split: six Democrats and six Republicans. And when it meets members don’t sit as two opposing camps but interspersed, as individuals.

Tom Graves of Georgia, the group’s top Republican, has called the committee “a little place of refuge” where members can offer “ideas of how to make this place work better.” Rather than operating as a typical committee, where Republicans put on their red jerseys and Democrats put on their blue jerseys to battle it out, “we kind of made a decision not to do that,” says committee Chairman Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington state. “Everybody’s wearing ‘fix Congress’ jerseys.”

Other than at the House gym or on the floor of Congress itself, members of the two parties have few opportunities to actually meet each other, Mr. Graves notes. The committee recommends that at the start of each new term a bipartisan retreat be held for all members and their families. And it says a bipartisan, members-only space should be created on Capitol Hill as well. 

As part of an effort to reach out, Mr. Kilmer has visited the Republican Study Committee, an influential caucus of conservative members. And Mr. Graves paid a similar call on the New Democrat Coalition, a group of center-leaning congressional Democrats.

The select committee’s proponents include some 40 House freshmen, who are eager to see a change in the highly partisan climate of the chamber, and the Association of Former Members of Congress, which includes members from both parties.

The committee is" a bright spot in all of this [partisan] noise right now,” Mr. Graves has said. 

Last November, the House extended the panel’s tenure through the end of 2020, which promises to be a politically acrimonious year that will include presidential impeachment hearings in the Senate and the November elections.

At the same time the select committee will be trying to bring sensible reforms to the way the House operates. That could pay an even bigger dividend: the realization that Republicans and Democrats can work together for the common good. 

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