In the Push for Congressional Modernization, the Senate Is Falling Behind

When was the last time you heard a politician give a sweeping speech about the congressional calendar? Do you remember being moved by an article or social media post about strengthening the onboarding process for new members of Congress? Does establishing bipartisan committee staff briefings really fire you up? If you answered no to these questions, it’s probably because you aren’t a nerd, or because these issues are small, mechanical and administrative. They are, to be quite honest, boring.

From the COVID-19 pandemic to reckoning with racial injustice, the challenges facing our country are immediate and sweeping in scope, complex and costly. To be sure, these issues demand the attention of Congress. But they also require a Congress that is capable of rising to these challenges. Working toward this goal means digging down into the minute details of how Congress works.

A functional and representative legislature is the hallmark of a healthy democracy. But Congress is only as strong as the rules, norms and values to guide it. At the same time that the global pandemic demands a response from Congress that is unprecedented in its scale, the institution is reaching unacceptably low levels of productivity and new heights of partisan tribalism. These dynamics, in turn, fuel a lack of confidence in Congress and in our democracy.

The House of Representatives recognized this reality in 2018, when it formed the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. This bipartisan group of legislators was tasked with investigating and developing recommendations to make the House (and, by extension, Congress) more effective, efficient and representative. During the 116th Congress, the select committee advanced nearly 100 recommendations designed to meet this goal, some of which have already been enacted through the recent House rules package. Based on the bipartisan success that the select committee modeled, it was renewed for the 117th Congress.

However, Congress is a bicameral legislature. And right now, the Senate is failing to step up to the plate. In order for Congress to fulfill its constitutional duties, Senate leadership must follow suit, committing resources and administrative power toward an effort to improve the function of the institution.

Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Congressional Staff

This effort would have a broad set of mechanical and administrative challenges facing it. Arguably the most consequential of these issues is that of attracting and retaining quality congressional staff. Congressional staff, both on Capitol Hill and in district offices, are crucial to the daily operations of the institution — crafting policy, advancing legislation and interacting daily with constituents. Despite the responsibilities and wide range of challenges facing these public servants, congressional staff receive lower pay compared to executive branch and private sector employees. Staff compensation has declined across communications, legislative, and administrative staff, prompting 65 percent of staffers to say that they plan to leave Congress within five years. Many enter the Congress-to-K Street pipeline, a dynamic that causes Congress to turn to lobbyists for expertise and undermines voters’ faith in their elected representatives.

These issues are heightened when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff of color. According to a recent report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, “people of color make up 40% of the U.S. population, but only 11% of all Senate personal office top staff.”

Promoting Bipartisan Policymaking

The challenges facing the country require a Senate that is capable of coming together across political differences to identify cross-partisan solutions. In the wake of the 2020 election and the Capitol siege, this goal will be harder than ever. In order to combat political tribalism, the Senate must be intentional about the rules and norms it has formed, and how these structures either build up or break down partisan divides. For example, introductory training and leadership development programs for incoming members and staff present the opportunity to establish a culture of bipartisanship at the outset. Committee structures and deliberative processes should be reviewed with an eye toward changes that could maximize collaboration across party lines.

Building Up Congress’ Technological Capabilities

21st century challenges also require a Senate that it is employing the strongest and most advanced tools available. But right now, Congress’ technology infrastructure is outdated and disjointed, with capabilities and standards varying widely across the 535 offices. Attacks from foreign powers point to additional concerns about Congress’ cybersecurity protocols. Alongside an update of its technology infrastructure, the Senate should take steps to ensure that both senators and staff have the training necessary to fully utilize modern resources.

Focusing attention on the administrative functions of Congress may make your eyes glaze over. During a global pandemic, prioritizing these issues may even seem like a misplacement of energy. However, the challenges facing our country necessitate a Congress that is able to identify and solve problems at scale. To reach this ideal, Senate leadership must commit resources and administrative support to modernize its rules and build its capacity. This effort should have bipartisan representation and be sufficiently funded and staffed to thoroughly examine the complex issues facing the Senate. Only with this foundation in place will see the types of legislative solutions that American communities need and deserve.


Meredith McGehee is executive director of Issue One based in Washington.

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