Image for Congressional Committee That Defied the Odds
Washington Congressman Derek Kilmer (right) guided the House Modernization Committee for four years. Under his leadership, committee members went from refusing to speak to each other to eating together and passing 202 bipartisan resolutions, most of which have been adopted.

A Lesson on Learning How to Talk to One Another

Most stories about Congress focus on conflict and chaos. Columnist Amanda Ripley’s recent story focused on how a congressional committee overcame conflict and achieved results by shifting the furniture, eating together and listening to one other.

Ripley’s story, published in The Washington Post, is instructive well beyond the halls of Congress.

The story subject is the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, created with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, required to approve measures only with supermajorities and assigned the mission “to fix Congress”. An internal committee with Elon Musk as chair would have an easier task to fix Twitter.

But in what a Roll Call reporter called a “parallel congressional universe,” the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress approved 202 bipartisan recommendations. Two-thirds of the committee’s recommendations have been implemented or are in process.

The committee was chaired for four years by Washington Democratic Congressman Derek Kilmer, who graduated from Princeton University, earned his doctorate at Oxford and worked as a management consultant before serving in the Washington Legislature, then winning a seat in Congress in 2012. In endorsing him, The Seattle Times called Kilmer a “problem-solver who can be bipartisan”. Aptly so.

Kilmer explained to Ripley that he began his committee chairmanship by individually meeting with the other 11 members. “Some of the conversations were really alarming,” Kilmer recalls, such as the fellow Democrat who told him, “I feel like not only was I in a relationship with someone who cheated on me; I was in a relationship with someone who cheated on me with someone who was trying to kill me.

“We’re Screwed”
Kilmer recallsed telling his chief of staff after the conversations, “We’re screwed. We’re going to have to do some stuff differently.” They did.

While the creaky institutions that needed updating were obvious enough, the path to discussing solutions wasn’t obvious at all. What Kilmer and his committee discovered was complicated questions sometimes demand simplified circumstances.

The committee went on a bipartisan retreat, hired a bipartisan committee staff and made progress. Enough progress so the committee was continued in the 117th Congress, which began January 6, 2021 with an attack on the Capitol, followed by 147 Republicans, including two committee members, who voted against certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

You’ve had family arguments over Thanksgiving dinner. Kilmer’s committee was so splintered, he couldn’t get his committee members to sit together on the same dais, let alone cooperate.

Kilmer met with his Republican vice-chair, William Timmons of South Carolina. After several tequila shots, they agreed to bring in a mediator. At the first mediation session, the mediator asked Kilmer and Timmons to talk first. Kilmer described how he crouched silently in his congressional office building, watching TV coverage on mute and talking quietly with his family on his cell phone. Timmons recalled how he wanted to rioters arrested and prosecuted. He admitted to concerns about 2020 election integrity, but still wished then-President Trump had acted sooner to end the attack.

Under prodding by the mediator, Kilmer and Timmons faced each other and described what they heard. The mediator recalled, “The conversations were remarkable”. Then the other 10 committee members took their turns.

“There were several cases when one party said something, and the other side’s jaw dropped,” according to the mediator “Both sides believed the other side had been acting politically. And something happened where they realized they were all people – people who had been through something traumatic.” The disagreements didn’t disappear, but the atmosphere changed.

Virtual hearings started three weeks after the mediation session. Kilmer enlisted a psychotherapist, psychologist and master facilitator to offer guidance. When Congress returned to in-person hearings, the committee met in a round-table format where, as Kilmer observed, committee members and witnesses could loke “eye-to-eye”.

The House Modernization Committee met and interviewed witnesses around a table.

Shifting the Furniture
The committee administrator said the round table setting “made people more comfortable” and meetings “very conversational”. Committee member Dean Phillips, D-Minnesota, said, “We learned by conversation – not confrontation. It was the most profoundly meaningful and gratifying time I’ve spent in Congress.” Committee members ate dinners together. “We actually spent time together, and we talked about things,” Timmons says.

Republican and Democratic members did what was politically unthinkable – they shared their private cell numbers with each other.

Kilmer’s big takeaway after four eventful years: “We need to have these tough conversations with each other. Otherwise, the resentments and blame ferment underground, and they will come out in some other way.”

Some of the recommendations being implemented include bipartisan orientation sessions for incoming members of Congress, bipartisan spaces in the Capitol and bipartisan dinners at the Library of Congress.

“The most compelling legacy of the modernization committee,” Congressman Phillips says, “is not what it did, but how it did it.” And that’s the lesson that echoes well beyond Capitol Hill to workplaces, college campuses, school board meetings and even family dinner tables.

Some of the Results

  • Establishing space for bipartisan gatherings of House members in the Capitol.
  • Scheduling a bipartisan retreat for lawmakers and their spouses at the start of each two-year congressional session.
  • Providing training, during orientation for new lawmakers, to facilitate policy debates and understanding opposing points of view.
  • Encouraging committees and subcommittees to test alternative hearing formats to better share ideas in a civil manner.
  • Improving committee scheduling tools to avoid double-booking lawmakers.
  • Streamline services for procurement of office supplies and sending official mail.
  • Developing plans for ensuring continuity of operations in the event of an emergency.
  • Making permanent a current, temporary task force that is developing strategies for advancing the House workforce, including mentorship and training programs, tools for evaluating compensation, and improving fellowship and internship opportunities.
  • Improving access for disabled people in congressional buildings.
  • Reviewing congressional budgets.