WASHINGTON — The leaders of a bipartisan panel tasked with modernizing Congress on Wednesday urged the House Appropriations Committee to fund several changes they say would improve the lives of members and staff as well as how the institution itself functions.
Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and South Carolina Republican William R. Timmons IV asked appropriators to help the Select Committee on Modernization implement several of the 97 recommendations it made during the last Congress.
Kilmer, chair of the panel and a member of the Appropriations Committee, pushed for funding to improve salary, benefits, training opportunities and the work-life balance of congressional staffers to try to keep more of them from leaving the legislative branch for other career opportunities.
“The ongoing brain drain leaves Congress relying on lobbyists for policy expertise, and that’s not the system the framers intended,” Kilmer said during the spending panel’s annual “Members Day” hearing.
Kilmer said the modernization panel wants appropriators to include report language in the fiscal 2022 Legislative Branch spending bill for a “thorough and updated evaluation” of the formula used to determine how much each House member gets annually in the Members Representational Allowance.
The effort to increase staffer pay to stem high turnover rates among staff is backed by key House leaders, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries. The pair wrote to appropriators earlier this year to advocate for a 20% increase in funding for MRAs, for committees, and for leadership offices to allow for staff salary boosts.
Advocates and lawmakers have voiced concerns in recent years about overworked and underpaid staff leading to high turnover rates and forcing lawmakers to lean on lobbyists and outside groups for deep expertise on policy issues.
Appropriators should also provide funding for the chief administrative officer to create “institution-wide standards” for onboarding and training for employees as well as a pilot “congressional leadership academy” for members, Kilmer said.
Each member’s Capitol Hill office operates like its own small business, with its own budget and personnel policies — effectively, 435 fiefdoms with their own rules. The modernization panel proposed centralizing some essential human resources functions to both take the burden off of individual offices and ensure more standardized processes.
Lawmakers, staff and advocates have told the modernization panel that most staff and some lawmakers are never trained on how to manage employees, which can lead to ineffective teams or toxic work environments.