Liska is a government affairs consultant and former head of the congressional engagement program at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars.
Washington is once again playing its quadrennial game of political musical chairs. And, although the makeup of Congress is not as different as some projected, the House and Senate membership includes plenty of new faces — and, with them, a host of new staff.
With this new Congress comes ample opportunity for the institution to improve and become more efficient. A significant amount of thought leadership has been done on this topic, most notably by the perennial efforts of the Congressional Management Foundation, but it's seemed to pick up steam the last few years. The genuinely bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, for example, has been given two more years to build on the 97 ways to modernize the place that it has already recommended.
These proposals seek to allay a wide array of concerns — about financial inefficiencies, antiquated internal processes, delayed efforts at diversity and inclusion, decades-old procedures and the paucity of opportunities for members to interact with one another informally.
But so far one element key to a functional Congress has gone unaddressed: internships.
Like so many D.C. organizations, Congress cannot function effectively without interns. Answering the phones, running bills and other papers to the floor, gathering co-signers on letters, leading Capitol tours — the members and their committees rely on interns for mission-critical functions every day.
Not all these duties are savory, either. They include getting screamed at by constituents, remaining on Capitol Hill at all hours and enduring repetitive tasks like slicing open envelopes or collating and stapling reports.
And sadly, as the events of Jan. 6 made clear, interns are no less shielded than members and paid staff from real and potentially life-threatening danger.
Yet in the work of the Modernization Committee over the past two years, internships have been mentioned only once. And it was in passing, not in reference to any reform or analysis of self-improvement. So as the panel gets back to work — with Republican William Timmons of South Carolina newly taking the top Republican seat next to Chairman Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat — the role and treatment of interns must be addressed.
"It's not 100, but 97 is still an A," Kilmer said last fall about the committee's roster of recommendations so far. So here are three more that would make it a perfect score:
Pay all Hill interns. Provide them with additional resources before and after their internship. And create a standardized framework for internships.
All interns must be paid. Full stop. Entry-level experience in Congress should not solely be for the wealthy and privileged. And as anyone who has interned on the Hill knows, it's real work with real responsibility. While living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, unpaid interns are forced to watch every cent they spend. Aside from living in cramped group houses, student dorms or a relative's basement, some walk miles a day to get to work — or else endure commutes from suburbs almost two hours away. And believe it or not, some interns who support our nation's policymakers may face food insecurity.
By paying all interns, Congress can ensure these crucial parts of a member's office are treated as such and are able to focus 100 percent on the work at hand.
Paying interns is not a new concept, and there have been some major victories in recent years. Momentum is building to change the way internships are viewed on an institutional level thanks to the great work done by Pay Our Interns and College to Congress. Although some internships are now funded many still are not — including those at committees. The ball remains in Congress' court to widen the pool of funds so all interns can receive a fair salary for their often Herculean efforts.
Internships aren't just boxes to be checked; they should be launchpads for careers in public service and so they should be designed as such. So the Chief Administrative Officer's office and House Administration Committee should create a set of internship standards for the House including a set of baseline duties (constituent correspondence, answering phones and drafting policy memos, for example), a required orientation to Capitol Hill logistics and etiquette, the option of a confidential post-internship exit interview with the CAO — and mandatory training for intern coordinators.
This is not intended to standardize all internship experiences, because each office has its own rhythm and needs. It could provide a benchmark for interns to use in measuring their experience, however, while guiding offices on how to properly treat and empower interns. By emphasizing training and education, Congress can help make the internship experience more fulfilling for many more young people.
Finally, as an additional investment in those seeking a career in public service, any college student spending a whole semester in the Capitol should get expanded benefits during and after their internships These could include special access to the Congressional Research Service, limited access to the Hill's primary care services, commuting subsidies, a special speakers' series and access to learning programs like the Congressional Staff Academy.
One goal of the so-called Mod Com, also known as the Fix Congress Committee, has been to fight brain drain and staff turnover. Enhancing the intern experience with fair wages, expanded resources and standardized training for both the students and the aides who supervise them will do plenty to bolster congressional staff capacity — which will strengthen the institution.
If we commit to a diverse intern corps that's empowered, paid, supported and respected, we can continue to improve Congress and make it more efficient, effective and truly reflective of the people it serves.
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To bemoan the trials faced by members of Congress these days may seem naïve, even perverse.
The lawmakers on Capitol Hill represent one of the most hated classes in American public life. If service in Congress has become polarized, fruitless and even dangerous, anti-government rhetoric from Capitol Hill ideologues is at least partly to blame. Public approval for Congress stands at just 25 percent — up a few points from last month, but still well below most public institutions.
Yet it is fair to say that House members and senators are in the throes of an existential, electoral and institutional crisis.
The mob assault on the Capitol is over but the death threats continue, and congressional aides are leaving the Hill in droves. So are many lawmakers, including relative moderates like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, one of four Republican senators who have already announced they won't run again in 2022.
A delay in the release of detailed census data that has now stretched to five months, into September, will significantly delay the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts — leaving dozens of incumbents as well as their potential challengers in the dark about where they will even run their campaigns and when they can get started.
As Steve Israel, a former congressman who once ran the House Democrats' campaign operation, told Politico, you "have your players lined up," but "you don't know where the field begins and ends."
Renewed Republican assaults on voter access — in the legislatures of many of the biggest states under their control— may also complicate congressional elections, making it harder for candidates in both parties to mobilize and turn out would-be constituents.
All this comes on the heels of an unprecedented, four-year assault on public servants by former President Donald Trump. His evisceration of the professional civil service in federal agencies, and his attacks on state election officials who were then threatened with violence, have been well documented. But Congress, too, was sidelined by Trump's chaotic governing style, and by the constant demand for lawmakers to respond to his erratic tweets and policy moves.
Add to this the logistical hurdles and health threats posed by the pandemic, combined with Congress' ongoing failure to modernize its own operations, and morale on Capitol Hill may have reached a nadir. Deficits in staff training and pay, weakened committees, and escalating partisanship and campaign costs all have taken their toll. Now, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, many lawmakers are literally fearing for their lives.
"They realize they can't get anything passed," says Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that works to make the legislative branch more functional. "They realize the committees have been neutered on some level by leadership. And they can't serve their constituents, because they don't have power to do that."
The problem is not that the supply of congressional candidates will dry up. The 2022 midterm promises to be funded with billions of dollars and extremely hard fought — especially as Republicans, who almost always do well the first election after a Democrat enters the White House, set out to build on 2020 gains that put them only a handful of seats from the House majority.
The problem is rather what caliber of public servant might seek out a life on Capitol Hill as it is today.
Congress has always had its share of colorful outliers, of course. The late Jim Traficant, an Ohio Democrat who was the last person expelled from the House after a 2002 bribery conviction, comes to mind. But the arrival in the House of Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right conspiracy theorist with little to no policy agenda and recently stripped of both her committee posts, bodes poorly for the institution. So does the departure of Portman, one of a long list of lawmakers known as worker bees willing to work across the aisle who has left or is heading for the exits.
Some lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, who even following his departure continue largely to defend Trump, amplify his election falsehoods and stoke ideological divisions and obstructionism.
But the solution to Capitol Hill's woes will not come from one party alone. One of its few bright spots lately has been the work of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which toiled in the previous two years to issue 97 bipartisan recommendations for how to make the institution work better — and was rewarded with two more years to propose even more improvements.
The panel's recommendations include shoring up congressional staff and support organizations, streamlining the congressional calendar to create blocks of time for committee work, modernizing the budget process — and encouraging more bipartisan oversight, retreats and training. Some of the proposals are already being implemented and more will be soon. The goal is a Congress that's more transparent, accountable, effective and even civil.
The committee's work is supported by some 70 groups, including the CMF and the Partnership for Public Service, in the vanguard of a growing coalition to reform and revitalize the battered Congress.
It's a mission that's gained urgency since Jan. 6, which spawned a new initiative by close to two dozen civil society groups dubbed CapitolStrong. That coalition will work to strengthen and invest in Congress and those who work there, particularly congressional staff.
Voters "like to demonize the institution," notes Fitch. "But in reality, we need a robust and healthy Congress. We need public service professionals."
Some voters might roll their eyes, but if the "first branch" breaks, democracy will pay the price.
Carney is a contributing writer.
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In September, after nearly two years of work, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress released its final report — a package of eight dozen recommendations to help make Congress more effective and responsive to the public.
As the majority Democrats map out their priorities for the new Congress, they should commit to the committee's reauthorization.
Much has been written about the committee's work as a bipartisan bright spot. Its members are laudatory about the space it provided for cross-aisle cooperation, and outside advocates have applauded the output: bundles of detailed recommendations that would genuinely improve how the House does its job, from reforms to the budget process and regulatory oversight to staff retention and administrative efficiencies. There is little doubt about the quality of the committee's product.
But there are other compelling reasons that House Democrats should support reauthorization. Beyond the obvious need for more high-quality ideas, sustaining (or making permanent) the Modernization Committee would also be good politics.
First, a congressional reform panel gives members interested in the health of the institution a structured place to funnel their expertise.
Political scientist Roger H. Davidson once coined these reform-minded members "procedural entrepreneurs." In every era, he observed, "at least a few members of Congress cultivate a lively interest in the institution itself: how Congress works, how its virtues can be nurtured, how its effectiveness can be improved." Davidson was studying the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. But the observation still holds true.
Some members now, as then, are particularly drawn to the machinery of the institution, but only rarely have an avenue to do much about it. "Internal House operations have always interested me," says GOP Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, and yet his assignment to the Modernization Committee was "the first opportunity in over a decade to take a deep, internal look at how the House functions."
Providing that opportunity at all times is important. The absence of a dedicated space to study, debate and propose reforms does not do away with calls for reform — but it does risk making those calls more unwieldy and, potentially, fractious.
For example, the arrival of the so-called Watergate Babies, the huge class of House members elected after President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 on a commitment to make the government more honest and transparent, precipitated a period of bitter intraparty battles. The newcomers arrived with fresh and incredulous eyes, and with the help of elder reformers adopted a sweeping agenda to remake Congress. It was a distinctly confrontational approach, where reforms were not so much thoughtfully studied and debated as decreed and relentlessly fought for.
Those that came to pass — from televised committee sessions to floor procedures allowing more votes on divisive issues — generated a range of unintended consequences.
The virtue of a Modernization Committee is not only that it tackles tough institutional issues, but that it provides an insulated and contained space for doing so. Reform topics that are politically tricky (earmarks), have thorny partisan histories (the Office of Technology Assessment), or are genuinely complex (biennial budgeting) enjoy a holding space for careful treatment by reform-minded members.
Second, while the Modernization Committee's work may not strike the same political points as members' work on health care, jobs or climate change, it still pays political dividends.
Coverage in local papers has been congratulatory and approving. A newspaper in the western Washington district of Derek Kilmer, the committee's Democratic chairman, framed the panel's work as promoting "civility and bipartisanship," for example. And while it's unlikely many voters care about the congressional calendar or hearing formats, most do care that the people they send to Congress are making concerted efforts to improve through compromise a broken branch of government.
Perhaps most importantly, the Modernization Committee represents a distinctly better approach for updating Congress than past waves of reform — and one less likely to so radically upset existing power structures that the reforms are put to bed quickly.
The history of legislative reform is characterized by big bursts of energy followed by murky legacies.
The 1946 law reorganizing Congress — which included radical budget reforms, streamlining committee jurisdictions and the start of merit-based staffing — was historic in ambition. In practice, though, most of its cornerstone changes were scuttled. Senior members jettisoned the budget reforms; committee members didn't much care for more independent staff; and a proliferation of subcommittees limited the law's capacity to rein in a sprawling committee system.
Then, as now, a special panel had been formed and given just two years to propose improvements. Its short lifespan put it under significant pressure. Most of its ideas were imported from political scientists and were not the product of internal deliberation and compromise. And the committee was neither truly representative of the membership nor meaningfully engaged the regular committees that would be responsible for turning proposed reforms into reality. And so the approach destined the law's far-reaching provisions to disappointment.
Adaptive changes that stick require time to socialize and iterate. They benefit from internal grappling among those who will be affected. Like any complex body, Congress is more amenable to disciplined and incremental changes than hurried and sweeping ones.
The Modernization Committee, under celebrated leadership, has made strenuous efforts to involve members across the institution in its work. It has demonstrably committed to careful study and deliberation of ideas — and worked collaboratively with the committees responsible for implementing its 97 proposals.
To cut its lifespan short now would be to terminate a worthwhile experiment that seems to be on a different path than its predecessors.
The politics of change never suggest good odds, especially at the Capitol. And the congressional history of select committees that push through big changes don't enjoy rosy histories. Reauthorizing the Modernization Committee would signal support for a different, smarter approach. It's a safe bet for any party committed to better government.
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Organizer: R Street Institute
"Congress Overwhelmed," an important new book edited by Timothy M. Lapira, Lee Drutman and Kevin R. Kosar, presents the provocative thesis that a decline in congressional capacity is responsible for much of our contemporary political dysfunction. The book's essays explore topics such as the role of congressional pay in developing expertise and why the efficacy of the legislature has lagged behind other branches of government. Perhaps most importantly, Congress Overwhelmed highlights the many ways in which our political outcomes could be improved by fundamental structural reforms.
Please join Bettina Poirier, adjunct professor of law at American University, as she sits down with Lapira, Drutman and Kosar to discuss their ideas for fixing the problems that currently ail Congress.