The Most Bipartisan Committee in Congress You’ve Never Heard Of

Gridlock, gridlock, gridlock.  Thanks to deeply embedded polarization, Democrats and Republicans in Congress hardly work together in a bipartisan manner to pass legislation.   However, there’s one committee that has a proven track record of members working together across the aisle: the House Select Committee on Modernization of Congress.

What it is: A bipartisan committee with an equal number of Democratic and Republican members, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was established in January 2019 to investigate, study, hold hearings, and develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent.  The committee’s members are appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and two committee members are each chosen from the House Rules Committee, the House Administration Committee, and the congressional freshman class.

While the committee does not have legislative jurisdiction – meaning it lacks the authority to develop or advance legislation – it does release rolling recommendations throughout the year. Nearly 100 recommendations have been issued over the past three years across several key areas, including streamlining and reorganizing the House of Representatives human resources, overhauling the onboarding process for new members, modernizing House technology, and reforming the budget and appropriations process.

Recent moves: On December 8, 2021, the select committee approved 25 new recommendations, 14 of which are designed to create a more civil and collaborative environment in Congress.  Key examples include creating bipartisan websites for committees, hosting bipartisan committee events, and promoting civility and collaboration at a proposed Congressional Leadership Academy and Congressional Staff Academy.  The new recommendations’ focus on civility is likely a reaction to the institution’s increasingly polarized environment that has only gotten worse since last year’s riot at the Capitol.

Recommendations do become policy. Even though the select committee can’t develop its own legislation, nearly 60% of the 97 recommendations been implemented by Congress to some degree.  Key examples include:

  • Creating a one-stop shop Human Resources HUB dedicated to Member, committee, and leadership staff.
  • Making permanent the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
  • Allowing newly elected members to hire and pay one transition staff member.
  • Providing more financial stability for congressional staff enrolled in the federal student loan program.
  • Establishing a Community Project Funding process to allow non-profit entities to apply for competitive grants from a member of Congress (House only).  Community Project Funding requests are similar to earmarks in that they allow members to allocate funding to projects in their district, although the newest iteration has more rules and transparency requirements.

But unfinished business remains.  Many of the committee’s recommendations that have been adopted by Congress amount to non-partisan, low-hanging fruit intended to improve the workplace environment for congressional staff and members.  In contrast, the committee’s more sweeping, structural recommendation on budget and appropriations haven’t seen much movement, with the exception of the committee’s Community Project Funding recommendation.  These include:

  • Requiring an annual Fiscal State of the Union with a presentation of baseline budgetary facts to provide a common set of numbers on which to base decisions;
  • Requiring a biennial budget resolution with annual appropriations bills, which would provide appropriators more time to plan; and
  • Limiting use of the budget reconciliation process to only deficit reduction and require an explanation of changes in direct spending or revenue that have not been reconciled.

While the Select Committee on Modernization of Congress certainly seems to have a bipartisan track record, the polarized environment of the legislative branch limits how far the committee’s recommendations can go, especially when they pertain to larger, structural changes.  However, the committee’s work is far from done – the House voted in January 2021 to reauthorize the select committee through 2023 – meaning the bipartisan group will continue to have time to put out new recommendations to create a more efficient and productive Congress.

Previewing Congress’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad September

Lawmakers are facing a September like no other.  With only a dozen or days scheduled to be in person in DC, Members of Congress must address a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” package, a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, last month’s expiration of the debt ceiling, and appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022Each of these major bills carries several steps of their own, including committee hearings, markups, and behind-the-scenes negotiation.  How will lawmakers on Capitol Hill make it through such a complicated month?

Calendar At-A-Glance

Here’s how the calendar sets up.

Okay, Let’s Break it Down

Reconciliation

So, the House committees are meeting to mark-up the $3.5 trillion human infrastructure bill, also known as the reconciliation bill.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has expressed a desire to pass the entire reconciliation bill by October 1, punting her version over to the Senate.

But what about the Senate?  The Senate is out till September 13. Even though their version of the reconciliation bill is due September 15, the Senate has yet to schedule any committee hearings.  Remember too that the Senate committees are a 50:50 split, meaning it’s harder to pass partisan legislation like this out of committee.  This all leads us to believe that the Senate may only release concepts or principles around what will be included in the legislation to meet the deadline.

We expect that when the House passes their bill, the Senate substitute the bill with their own changes. The Senate floor process includes debate and likely another all-night vote-a-rama session.  With any changes the Senate makes to the bill, the House will have to vote again, meaning the reconciliation bill has a way to go before it reaches President Biden’s desk.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

Speaker Pelosi issued a September 27 deadline for the House to vote on the bill as the Senate approved it by a 69-30 vote on August 10.  If the bill doesn’t get passed in time, the House will have to vote to extend the Highway Trust Fund, which is estimated to become insolvent by October 1.

Debt Ceiling

Oh yeah, and Congress will need to raise or suspend the debt ceiling to avoid the US from defaulting on its loans. Usually, lawmakers generally agree in a bipartisan manner to increase the debt limit, but Republicans have publicly stated they will not support raising the debt limit and could force Democrats to raise the debt limit in a partisan way and without any Republican support.  

Appropriations

Even though the House has passed 9 out of 12 appropriations bills, the work has just begun in the Senate.  This signals the likelihood that Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution before September 30th to keep the government funded past September. 

How Will Things Play Out?

Between a packed schedule, partisan differences in key legislation, and divisions among some Democrats, September is shaping up to be an unpredictable month for Congress.  Below are some key items to watch for.

Will the House pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27?

Speaker Pelosi announced the September 27 deadline per an agreement with a group of moderate House Democrats who didn’t want to vote on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill without voting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill first.  Many moderate Democrats are holding firm on this agreement to pass this bill, even if the Senate is not finished with their reconciliation bill. Therefore, the divide between moderates and progressives on how to move forward with the legislation could create more problems for the Speaker. 

Will Sinema and Manchin demand a lower dollar amount for reconciliation?

However, the main question that is still on everyone’s mind is will the Democrats unanimously support $3.5 trillion in new spending as moderates in both chambers have concerns around this high price tag.

Even though Senate Democrats unanimously approved the budget resolution, two key moderate Democrats have signaled an unwillingness to approve $3.5 trillion in new spending, thus raising doubts about the bill’s future.  In a statement issued after the budget resolution’s passage, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) expressed “serious concerns about the grave consequences” facing Americans if Congress decides to spend an additional $3.5 trillion.  On August 23, a spokesperson for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) said the Senator would simply not back a $3.5 trillion bill. As the next couple of weeks unfold, all eyes will be on both Senators as the negotiations are ongoing around the reconciliation bill.

September Is Only the Beginning

With September as thorny as it is, Q4 is shaping up to be the biggest legislative fall in a number of years.  And just when they figure out these massive domestic policy issues, 2022 will be just around the corner, and with it a quick transition to campaign season for the midterm elections.