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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
 

Jayne: Can Congress be fixed?

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: November 11, 2023, 6:02am

As Rep. Derek Kilmer announces that he will not seek reelection next year, the question is obvious: Can it be fixed?

When a representative steps down, the natural inclination is to focus on a successor. To eye the pending political machinations. To gnash teeth over what it means for the political balance in Washington, D.C.

In this case, it probably does not mean much. Kilmer, a Democrat, has represented Washington’s 6th District since 2013. It is a district that has elected Democrats for nearly 60 years, is rated D+6 by the Cook Partisan Voting Index and preferred Joe Biden by 18 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election.

Given Republicans’ continued self-immolation in the state, that is unlikely to change. And given Hilary Franz’s rapid about-face to withdraw from the 2024 governor’s race and run for Kilmer’s seat, that is even less likely to change.

There might be other strong candidates from both parties in the 6th District, but Franz has name recognition as state commissioner of public lands and will be a compelling and tenacious campaigner.

There is a downside for voters; they won’t get to see Franz and Attorney General Bob Ferguson battle to be the top Democrat in next year’s gubernatorial race. But there likely is an upside for Franz, who said in a statement, “The challenges we face extend beyond the borders of Washington, and so must our solutions.”

Yet we didn’t come here today to talk about a congressional district that covers the Olympic Peninsula, far from the immediate concerns of voters in Clark County. No, we came to talk about Congress and dysfunction and the enmity that has engulfed the other Washington.

The most interesting part of Kilmer’s six terms in Congress has been an effort to change that culture. For four years, he was chair of the now-disbanded Modernization Committee, a bipartisan body designed to make Congress work better.

Was it successful? Considering that the House has demonstrable difficulty choosing a speaker, that prospective government shutdowns are a seasonal occurrence and that Congress is as defective as ever, that remains in question. Then again, it’s unlikely that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men could put Congress back together again.

As columnist Amanda Ripley wrote for The Washington Post this year, Kilmer “met with all the committee members, one by one, to ask what they wanted to work on. The answer was, basically: Nothing. Most didn’t think Democrats and Republicans would be able to sit in the same room together, let alone work with each other.”

The previous committee to reform Congress, after all, passed zero resolutions before disbanding in 2018. So the fact that the Modernization Committee agreed on 202 recommendations, despite requiring two-thirds approval from the evenly divided body, can be viewed as a success. The bipartisanship led one reporter to call the committee a “parallel congressional universe.”

Most important, the committee continued to find common ground after the fractious attack of Jan. 6, 2021. Ripley writes: “As Congress returned to in-person hearings, committee members did something truly startling. They stopped sitting up on high, on a dais like every other committee, and started sitting in a round table format, at the same level of the people who came to testify. Turns out that fixing politics starts by rearranging the furniture.”

Any committee could adopt that approach. But far too many members of Congress view committee hearings as an opportunity for theatrics and sound bites that play well to the audience back home.

A single bipartisan committee cannot change that; only voters can, by rejecting the stridency, fanaticism and extremism that often are conflated with leadership. But the fact that Congress has adopted dozens of recommendations from the Modernization Committee provides a small glimmer of hope.

Congress can be fixed — if enough members are willing to roll up their sleeves.

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