Modernizing Congress: How Small Steps Toward Effective Government May Be the Solution to America’s Political Divide

US Capitol. Photo by Mike Stoll on Unsplash

In a country that feels more divided with each passing day, The House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is pushing the boundaries of bipartisanship. Established in 2019 by Speaker of the House Pelosi, the House Committee on Modernization is tasked with “investigating, studying, making findings, holding public hearings, and developing recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people.” The only committee in Congress to be composed of equal members of both parties, Democratic and Republican, their meetings and hearings are conducted around a table, talking together as colleagues and problem solvers. After extensive conversation and debate, they recommend and push through legislation to make Congress a more bipartisan and effective branch of government. Their work as a committee in fostering an inclusive, cooperative environment on Capitol Hill is crucial in such a time of political turmoil, particularly as the country grapples with the aftermath and repercussions of the January 6th insurrection and prepares for November’s midterm elections. 

 In recent years, the United States has been ranked incredibly high among developed countries for divisiveness among the population, especially pertaining to political party affiliation, with Democrats and Republicans often battling at the polls, on social media, and among communities. Within Congress, members are increasingly voting along party lines, signalling a fall in effective democratic dissent. This summer, I interned on the Hill and observed firsthand how many members blatantly ignore their colleagues across the aisle. At times, backs were quite literally turned on each other during committee meetings, and floor speeches can often be given to an empty House or Senate chamber. Many economists, politicians, and researchers are split over how to heal such a polarized nation as voters gear up for midterms this November. The issues at stake are not niche, nor are they ignorable. In fact, most Americans considered the 2020 election between former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden a struggle for core American values. For many, politics has become personal, making compromise, listening, and solutions nearly impossible. At this point, what could possibly bring the voters together? 

Within the legislative chambers, however, a new initiative has taken hold in the form of the Select Committee on Modernization. It doesn’t focus on hot-ticket items like gun regulation or abortion, but instead attempts to smooth the legislative process, healing Capitol Hill from the inside out. Its purpose of reforming Congress is seemingly simple but proves hard to achieve in real terms. As an institution founded in 1789, Congress thrives on tradition and institutionalized systems. Even its members have an average age of 58.4 in the House of Representatives and 64.3 years in the Senate. Change, even at the smallest level, is hard to come by and even harder to enforce. The members look at the physical structures of committee rooms, time allotments for speeches or questions, and even the orientation activities of freshman members. Their work is important and remarkably unappreciated as they fight an uphill battle for reform in an institution that aggressively fights back.

Congress can be an archaic institution by design. In many situations, the physical design of the buildings, committee rooms, and common spaces can exacerbate divisions between members. In committee rooms, Republicans and Democrats sit on opposite sides of the room by design, often not even facing each other or paying attention to each other, a pattern I observed consistently as an intern. Even when it is not their time to speak, members will make snarky, or even rude, remarks at each other during official committee proceedings. The disdain in the room is palpable and the structure of the meeting, hearing, or markup only makes it worse. Too many times, committee chairs have to bang their gavel just for a moment of sanity. Not only that, but strict time limits on Motions to Strike the Last Word, which are essentially just short speeches, questioning of witnesses, and propositions of amendments make it easier for politicians and their writing staff to focus on the newsclip over substance. Take a hearing on gun regulation in July this year, only months after the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. While there is no doubt that emotions were running high, tensions were heated, and both parties use the issue of gun violence as a key foundation of their parties’ platform, it is nonetheless incredibly frustrating to any constituent to watch politicians with predisposed ideas scream at each other for hours, often travelling in circles and using buzzwords to ensure a good newsclip. Of course, this is not every politician, nor is every citizen upset by this structure. However, one can clearly observe that little to no progress was accomplished over the span of a muli-hour committee markup, an all too common occurrence on Capitol Hill.

This stark, partisan divide is instilled in freshmen members of Congress from the moment they arrive at their office. Rather than facilitating productive conversation, or even ice-breaker-type team building (after all, this is a workplace), members of Congress are separated by party. There is no room for personal connections, even for members from the same state who may share similar interests across the aisle. A lack of bonding and understanding among coworkers leads to conflict in any workplace, and while this one is certainly more high-stakes, a fundamental sense of cooperation or effective, non-theatrical, debate can go a long way in making Congress live up to its goals of representation and legislative success. 

To improve these conditions, the committee has made a number of recommendations including the creation of a bipartisan “members-only” space which would encourage members to form personal connections outside of the stress of staffed committee meetings or floor debates, hopefully leading to more collaboration on bills where members can find common ground. Not only should members have their own space outside of staff constantly handing over evidence, speeches, and pressing phone calls to their ears, but official meetings can also be made much more effective through the use of a round-table system. While the majority of committees do not operate as a cooperative space, the physical structure of these meetings can certainly play a role in fostering a more inclusive space. With Democrats and Republicans sitting next to each other, an idea which, up until this point, was akin to political blasphemy, who knows what effective legislation will arise? Especially, as the committee points out, if these members are not divided from the moment they arrive on the Hill. In fact, one of the committee’s greatest accomplishments has been the implementation of a bipartisan freshman orientation. In this orientation, members participate in briefings and meetings on Congressional decorum, as well as bonding in order to usher in a functional and collaborative government for the American people. While these are not entire solutions for centuries-old prejudices against change, they take important steps to move Congress into the 21st century and help heal the divide on the Hill, which in turn will hopefully heal the divide in the people.

Despite the importance of the work being done by this committee, relatively few Americans are aware of its existence. Given the relative newness of the committee, there is little polling done on it. However, on Twitter, politicians’ preferred social media platform, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress currently has a measly 3,408 followers. The Democratic and Republican House Judiciary Committee Twitter accounts, in contrast, have a combined following of over 400,000 people. Many Americans simply do not grasp the importance of the work done by the Modernization Committee, especially as the United States steadily becomes a country of single-issue voters, with some top issues being healthcare (often abortion) and gun policy. Oftentimes, the difference between these issues and others that don’t compel voters to vote along single-issue lines is that these topics are much more personal to some people. Millions of people could point to a time when abortion changed their lives in a very immediate and concrete way, an effect the way Congress is operated could not even begin to have. The media also plays a large role in this disconnect and the division among voters, panning to their partisan audiences by using fear-mongering stories, which drives the voters to the polls with these issues in the forefront of their minds. Yet, it is the small steps happening behind closed doors that are sometimes pushing forward even the most hotly contested issues. By creating a more functioning government system, this select committee is doing one of the most crucial jobs in America, despite the lack of appreciation or even recognition for the work they are doing. 

As voters continue to feel evermore frustrated and upset by the politics they watch on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, it is crucial to remember that there are pockets of space left in the halls of Congress where members on starkly opposing sides of the aisle strongly agree with each other. The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress is working for the people, with the peoples’ opinions, beliefs, and values in their hearts. In order for the core issues at the center of recent elections to be addressed, Congress must first function as the representative democracy it was intended to be. As long as it remains true that elected officials are working to make that happen, the sharp turn towards democratic decline is further away than many may fear. The work of the Modernization Committee embodies a new age of American politics, if the voters will accept it. 

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sara Squyres

    This is an excellent article. This is why we have a round dinner table. Though sometimes a facilitator helps, it’s nice to have no one at the head of the table.- all diners are equal. I also think that maybe matching up a freshman congressperson of one party with a senior congressperson from another party might help., in the same vein as a grandparent can have a discussion with a grandchild in a more respectful way than a parent can with a grown child of a differing opinion.

Leave a Reply