Plenty of people are worried about political polarization. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, is doing something about it.
Kilmer, chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, is exploring ways to shift congressional culture to reward policymaking and collaboration rather than political posturing and unnecessary conflict. This is vital work. The country’s deep political fault lines are not just exhausting, they are potentially explosive, as the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol showed.
The Select Committee has a deceptively simple charge: To make Congress work better for the American people. In its first two years, the committee developed 97 recommendations for operational improvements, but Kilmer says much of what isn’t working in Congress is rooted in incentives, norms and expectations, not policies and procedures.
“It’s hard to divorce some of the operational challenges in Congress from the cultural challenges, where too often success is defined by making the other guy look bad,” Kilmer said.
Under his leadership, the committee has taken up the challenge, exploring in two recent hearings the factors that have led to congressional polarization and strategies for improving civility and collaboration, taking lessons from experts in organizational psychology, conflict resolution and cultural change.
Kilmer expects the committee to offer recommendations as early as this fall. But already, he has changed the select committee practices to create a more productive environment. He held a bipartisan planning retreat to develop common goals for the session and used operational funds to hire nonpartisan committee staff, rather than divvying them up between Democrats and Republicans. His may be the only congressional committee with joint staff.
Kilmer has convened recent hearings in a roundtable format, abandoning the traditional courtroom-like atmosphere where committee members receive testimony and deliver five-minute speeches from a raised dais.
“I decided that part of the way to fix things that are broken is to do things differently,” he said. “I find the worst way to have a conversation is to talk to the back of a person’s head.”
Instead, Democrat and Republican committee members are interspersed at a table to encourage cross-party communication. Rather than give each member a certain amount of time, Kilmer encourages them to ask questions as they come up and allows the discussion to naturally flow.
These may seem like small changes, but as part of a larger commitment to fix a broken system they could be the beginning of a monumental shift.
In tackling the roots of congressional dysfunction, Kilmer and his colleagues have taken on one of the moment’s greatest challenges. More elected officials should join their cause.