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Dems and GOP agree to fix Congress and even worked on it

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Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., center right, greets Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., after becoming Speaker of the House in the 15th ballot Jan. 7. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

House Republicans who have blocked Kevin McCarthy’s ascent to the presidency repeated a mantra during the four-day leadership struggle that ended after multiple rounds of negotiations: Congress is ‘broken’, have- they said.

It may sound like a talking point, which has been recycled year after year to denigrate the other side. This is a reliable fundraising tactic.

But as right-wing Republicans stood under the bright light of TV lights on the House floor each day, a dozen other House members sat scattered around the room, having spent four years working to solve some of the same problems.

It may be news to many Americans that it’s not a partisan idea to think Congress needs fixing. It’s not just ultra-conservative Republicans who believe it’s necessary. Democrats too.

Members of both parties even have some of the same ideas about how to proceed – and finding a consensus has taken years and happened out of the spotlight.

Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Representative Nancy Pelosi speak to each other in the House.

Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, DN.Y., House Democratic leader, and Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the House chamber Jan. 6. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In 2019, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, created a bipartisan committee for “congressional modernization.” It wasn’t just about updating the technology. The committee also took aim at partisan polarization and gridlock, “the failure to pass significant legislation, low public approval ratings, high levels of partisanship, and the general belief that the institution could work better on behalf of of the American people”.

In doing so, the committee saw that one of the reasons Congress didn’t work was that the president’s office and party leaders had too much control over just about everything. That’s one of the main criticisms made by Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and some of the others who won concessions from McCarthy during the leadership fight.

“Over the past few decades, there has been quite a strong centralization of power in leadership. … Everything was so dysfunctional, and the vitriol was so high, that even [Democratic] the leadership was like, ‘We can make changes here,’” said Rep. William Timmons, R.S.C., who served on the committee for all four years and in 2021 became the Republican vice president.

Timmons and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., who chaired the committee, spoke to Yahoo News in a joint interview. The committee was set up to last two years and was renewed for another two years, but it has now defunct, with Republicans controlling the House.

Rep. Derek Kilmer rushes past a column, holding his cellphone.

Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., at the U.S. Capitol in April 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Yet the committee has gone to great lengths to foster cross-party cooperation. It was created with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Recommendations required two-thirds support to be accepted.

Even the hearings were physically organized to encourage bipartisan collaboration. Republicans and Democrats alternated in each seat, rather than sitting on opposite sides of the room as is normally the case in courtrooms. Committee members also sat at a round table, all at the same level, rather than on a tiered dais, so everyone could look each other in the eye.

The committee has precedents. Nine times in the last century, Congress has created some sort of panel to propose reforms to the institution.

This time, a new panel grew out of a casual conversation in 2018 between frustrated lawmakers.

“We were having these conversations … about potential ways to democratize the work of Congress, to hold members more accountable, and hopefully reduce some dysfunctions,” Kilmer said. “There were conservatives. There were progressives. There were centrists. … We were ordering pizza and we would sit in the Capitol and talk about some of these things.

Members of the 118th Congress are sworn in by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Members of the 118th Congress are sworn in by President McCarthy on January 6. (Elizabeth Frantz/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This group found that the causes of Congressional dysfunction fell into several distinct spheres. Uncompetitive staff salaries have encouraged more capable individuals to move to other sectors, including lobbying shops. Countless logistical, data sharing and technological improvements were needed.

But they also noted that some members of Congress resorted to outrageous behavior because there was no other way for them to receive attention or praise.

“Members of Congress feel increasingly alienated from the legislative process,” said the committee’s final report, released in December. “Their inability to play a substantive role in legislative negotiations leaves some questioning the value of their committee work and seeking other ways to participate in the process.

Kilmer and Timmons both traced a decades-long power shift away from committees and into executive offices.

The Class of 1974 came to reform Congress and targeted “what was seen as too much power vested in committee chairmen,” Kilmer said. “So they came up with some changes in the hope that it would lead to more power for the grassroots members. That’s not really what happened. You started to see more power that lay in the Office of the President Who was put on steroids under the President [Newt] Gingrich.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, with salt-and-pepper hair, raises his right hand.

Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., is sworn in as Speaker of the House on Jan. 4, 1995. (Joe Marquette/AP Photo)

Timmons agreed, “When Gingrich became a speaker, a lot of things changed. They thought they were making good changes, and I think everyone now looks back and says, “Oh, those are bad changes.”

The centralization of power in executive offices has turned many lawmakers into spectators, and some have turned to performance politics as an alternative, according to the committee’s report. “For better or worse, social media and cable news provide an easy outlet for members to get their political views known.”

The committee’s recommendations to strengthen committees revolve around coordinating schedules so that members don’t have to choose between hearings or try to float between multiple hearings, in addition to going to vote.

“If you want committees to be the place where people develop policy expertise, where there is real discussion of ideas and where people can defend their ideas – and where you can maybe solve some problems Collaborative – this means Committees should stop being where you drop in for five minutes, deliver your speech for social media, then rush off to get to any of your other three committees you’re on at the same time,” Kilmer said. “So we made recommendations to try to deconflict the schedule and the calendar, and frankly to have more presence in DC”

These ideas have not yet been adopted. But out of 200 recommendations, “45 have been fully implemented and 87 have been partially implemented,” Kilmer said.

The cooperative spirit of the exercise rubbed off on its members. Timmons, who represents South Carolina’s second-most conservative district and who voted against certification of the 2020 election results even after the Jan. 6 insurrection, said no congressional reform work would have took place without Pelosi’s approval and support. , the former speaker.

“Without her, it would never have existed,” he said.

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