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Nov. 14, 2019, 4:19 p.m. EST

Meet the committee on Capitol Hill that’s trying to make Congress great again

Stopping staff brain drain, increasing civility and improving the budget process all figure into the modernization panel’s effort

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By Victor Reklaitis, MarketWatch


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A congressional panel envisions a brighter day with limited lobbyists, better retention of staff and a bipartisan sense of purpose.

It seems as if Congress has a committee for everything, even though it doesn’t accomplish all that much these days.

There might be grounds for optimism, however. This year Congress set up a panel that’s focusing on how to knock the institution itself back into shape.

In hearings that have unfolded during the current impeachment drama and months before it began, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has tackled a wide range of topics, including stopping a staff brain drain, increasing civility and collaboration, and improving the budget process.

The country’s founders aimed to establish Congress as the strongest branch of government, but it has been the weakest for at least a decade because it’s no longer independent, said former Virginia Republican Rep. Tom Davis in a recent interview. “The president’s party is basically an appendage of the executive branch, and the minority party no longer views itself as a minority shareholder. Instead, they’re the opposition party,” he said.

“You’re not going to restore that overnight without changes in behavior by the members and in the party structure. But one thing you can do is at least increase their knowledge base,” he added. Davis testified in May before the modernizing panel, calling for raising salary caps for staffers for Congressional committees, as well as for more funding for the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, key legislative branch agencies that serve as an in-house think tank and in-house auditor, respectively.

The 2017 tax-reform law, according to its critics, is a prime example of a measure that was shaped too much by lobbyists rather than by the diminished legislative branch, with provisions that favored brewers, citrus growers and other special interests. Legislation this year that aims to revamp the U.S. retirement system has drawn similar flak, with detractors saying insurers that provide annuities are having their way with it.

Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from the state of Washington who chairs the modernizing committee, said his experience at consulting giant McKinsey & Co. came up in discussions before he became the panel’s chairman, though mostly he just has long expressed interest in having Congress function better.

“When I was at McKinsey, I only had one or two instances where I got to work on a turnaround project,” he said in a recent interview. “This is one of the more significant turnaround projects that I’ve ever been assigned.”

Staff pay

One idea that has come up repeatedly at the modernizing panel’s hearings has been raising the pay for staff in order to attract and retain experienced aides and advisers. Republican and Democratic proponents argue that higher compensation for Capitol Hill staffers, along with other improvements, would help make Congress more effective and better equipped to stand up to lobbyists and executive-branch officials, who tend to have greater experience and bigger salaries.

The median salary for House and Senate office staffers is $52,722 and has stayed at around that level for about a decade, according to nominal figures from research firm LegiStorm. That’s as annual pay for lobbyists in Washington, D.C., averages around $124,000, per Salary.com data, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, a top-paying arm of the executive branch, has an average salary of about $185,000.

“The differential is just too high. It’s affecting policy,” Davis said, regarding the disparities in pay. The former GOP congressman now works at law and lobbying firm Holland & Knight and is part of a ReFormers Caucus at Issue One, a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to reduce the role of big money in politics.

An effort to raise the pay of members of Congress flopped in June, as some lawmakers feared that upping their own compensation would provide fodder for attack ads at re-election time that would resonate with voters. Davis believes voters would be more willing to accept pay raises for Hill staff. He sees a 25% chance of success for such a vote once the 2020 election is over.

Betsy Wright Hawkings, a consultant who previously worked for 25 years as a chief of staff for Republican lawmakers, said she was able to pay an experienced legislative assistant around $60,000 a year in 2008, when she was in a chief role. “It wasn’t going to make him wealthy, but it was enough to keep him,” she said in a recent interview. “He is now a chief of staff on the Hill — he has made it his career — because we were able to pay him enough to keep him on board.” After budget cuts, she was only able to pay a similarly capable legislative assistant about $40,000 a year in 2014, and that staffer eventually left to work as an industry lobbyist.

A salary of $40K is “more than a lot of people make, but not a lot in Washington, D.C. — and not enough to keep someone who has broad experience and knows his way around the Hill, when he could go downtown and make two or three times that lobbying,” said Hawkings, who is a senior strategic adviser at Issue One and managing partner at consulting firm Article One Advisors. “There are a lot of other stories that I could tell you, but that’s sort of the epitome.”

But she also stressed that giving raises to Hill staff hasn’t been and shouldn’t be the modernizing committee’s first order of business.

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