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A Tale Of Bipartisanship In Congress — No, Seriously

Then-Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., pictured in April 2019, has been working on a bipartisan commission tasked with fixing Congress. And they came up with a slate of recommendations.
Patrick Semansky
Then-Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., pictured in April 2019, has been working on a bipartisan commission tasked with fixing Congress. And they came up with a slate of recommendations.

Last year, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy asked Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., to help lead a new committee charged with investigating how to modernize the U.S. House, Graves cynically turned him down.

"I had declined it with the — I guess it's a sad acceptance that this was just going to be another failed attempt by Congress to say they're going to do something that they ultimately don't do," said Graves, who retired from Congress in early October. "And boy, was I pleasantly surprised by the outcome and the work of this committee."

He relented and, along with Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., set out with a joint mandate to examine ways to make the House more modern, more efficient and more bipartisan. Kilmer knew it would not be easy.

"The fact that Congress, according to recent polling, is held in lower regard than head lice, colonoscopies and the band Nickelback is some indication that the public doesn't hold Congress in high regard," he said.

Graves and Kilmer spoke to NPR in a joint Zoom interview shortly before Christmas.

The recommendations

After nearly two years, the six Democrats and six Republicans on the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress put out a final report in October with 97 unanimous recommendations on how to change the House.

A lot of them involve logistics, like how to better schedule committee hearings. Others are more controversial, like bringing back some form of earmark spending. And some might elicit eye rolls, like designating bipartisan space in the Capitol where lawmakers can just hang out.

Graves said the committee's work was all the more notable because they were able to find broad agreement during these hyperpartisan times. "It all occurred during the longest government shutdown in the history of our country. It occurred during impeachment. It occurred during a pandemic," he said.

It has already had some impact. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's 2021 work calendar reflected the committee's recommendations for a more balanced schedule, and new member orientation last month included a new bipartisan session on decorum. House Democrats are also seriously considering bringing back a form of earmarks, which allowed legislators to designate funding for specific projects, in the new Congress.

Playing nice

Two years studying how Congress works has given both men some perspective — and hope — for the new Congress, in which both chambers will be narrowly divided. "Tighter majorities could produce better results. It's a forced requirement to have to work together," Graves said.

House Democrats, Kilmer said, will have to be kinder to the Republican minority. "To some degree, Congress is not dissimilar to having a new puppy," he explained. "If you are not able to constructively engage members, particularly the minority, they chew the furniture."

Republicans, Graves said, need to negotiate in good faith with President-elect Joe Biden — something, he acknowledges, his party doesn't always do. "My hope is that members from my party will embrace that and will look for that as an opportunity to do something that, quite frankly, we didn't do as well as we could have when Barack Obama was president," he said.

Kilmer said good faith won't come easy, especially after over half of House Republicans supported a failed lawsuit to get the Supreme Court to overturn the presidential election results. "That's not to say that Congress can't get past that, but it would be dishonest of me to say that that's not something that people are concerned about," he said.

Both men readily agree that there's no House rules change or law that will suddenly make Congress work better. Kilmer said the hardest thing to change is how members treat one another and the institution.

"We did something very unusual on this committee, and that is we tried to change norms. Everything we recommended that committees do to encourage more bipartisan collaboration to be more productive, we actually modeled ourselves," he said. For example, Republicans and Democrats sat intermingled in committee hearings for this committee. In other committees, Republicans and Democrats sit on opposite sides.

The committee was set to expire at the end of this Congress' term, but Kilmer asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to keep it going. She agreed right before Christmas in a statement stating the panel "will continue to champion the best ideas that ensure that the People's House can carry on its vital work now and for years to come."

Pelosi has tapped Kilmer to continue to chair the committee. Graves retired this year, so McCarthy will have to appoint someone else, but Graves told NPR he supports the committee continuing. The work of fixing Congress is never done.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.