U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer Applies Technology to Democracy
In a Data First Q&A, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, talks about progress on open data standards for legislation, rules changes and other measures “to just make Congress work better.” The interview by our colleague Hudson Hollister, founder of HData, was conducted in February, 2022. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Representative Kilmer, Chairman of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, thank you so much for joining us.
Rep. Derek Kilmer
Congressman, tell us a bit about your passion for government innovation, the passion that brought you to decide to lead this committee.
Rep. Derek Kilmer
Well, I think there’s sort of two components of it for me. First, a lot of my background was in, in business and in economic development. I was a consultant for McKinsey and Company and then worked professionally in economic development. [In that industry] we’ve seen how innovation can drive organizational improvement.
So, as an organizational improvement nerd, I thought, why wouldn’t we apply some of this to the workings of Congress?
The second piece, just as an everyday American, is a belief that Congress ought to be working better on behalf of the American people. Part of the reason I came here, part of the reason I’m serving in this job is because I want things to work better – I want the federal government to work better. And I think my constituents want the federal government to work better.
In the district I represent, the largest employer is the federal government. When there are government shutdowns, and when there’s continuing resolutions – when the car stalls out – my district and its citizens really feel it.
And so, starting several years ago, you know, I was part of some bipartisan conversations about how we might drive some change in Congress to just make it work better. [Those conversations led to the formation of the Select Committee.]
When you first came to Congress, were there any “aha” moments as you discovered, processes or practices that need to be modernized?
Rep. Derek Kilmer
Well, there’s a bunch, you know! We started having these bipartisan conversations, nearly four years ago. The tenor of the conversation was originally around potential changes to the House rules, looking at the rules and the procedures of Congress, and some of those changes were adopted.
But as we were having these conversations about potential rules changes, we kept identifying other things that were broken – for example, the fact that Congress as an institution doesn’t do a good job of recruiting and retaining staff, or of finding diverse staff. Collectively, we realized: that’s not really a rules issue. That’s more a [management] issue that needs to be addressed.
The same was true of technology issues. Congress has been described by one of my colleagues as an 18th century institution, using 20th century technology to solve 21st century problems. This, too, is not really a rules issue.
And when we went down the line of issues related to the budget and appropriations process, some of that is rules stuff, but not all of it. Meanwhile, issues related to the basic function of Congress, where too often the place resembles the Jerry Springer show.
So we collected this grab bag of issues that needed to be addressed, [some with changes to the rules and some in other ways,] and quickly realized, well, maybe there ought to be a committee to look at some of this stuff.
That wasn’t a unique takeaway. About every 20 or 30 years, Congress realizes that things aren’t working the way they ought to and creates a select committee to look at the functions of Congress … The last iteration of this was in the early 1990s.
And so the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress was created, with a pretty broad mandate. But really, the mission is to make Congress work better for the American people.
As a former economic development consultant, and as a management consultant, did you have aspirations as you began the leadership of the Select Committee to be able to track its own results? And if so, what have you thought of its results so far?
Rep. Derek Kilmer
Well, I’ll tell you this. We made a couple of decisions on the front end of this effort: one, that our goal was to not just make recommendations or a final report, but to make change.
That’s a little bit like the Saturday Night Live fake commercial about the bank that only makes change! But that takeaway drove some operational changes within our committee.
As an example, we decided to make rolling recommendations. As the committee came to agreement on recommendations related to a subject area, we would find agreement, and we would pass them, and then we would go to work on trying to get them implemented.
That’s very different from most of the select committees [of the House of Representatives]. Part of this was a recognition that most of the select committees in modern history, certainly with regard to the operations of Congress, haven’t gotten anything done.
You go back to the select committee on budget and appropriations process reform: that committee passed zero recommendations. The [Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, created in 2011] looked at the budget and looked at debt and deficit reform [, but its recommendations were not enacted].
So we said, let’s on the front end agree that where we can find agreement, we will move forward with those – but also that we would not just make recommendations and stick them into a report at the end. Instead, we would hold ourselves accountable for trying to implement these recommendations.
So, as we speak, next week we’re going to have a hearing [held on Jan. 20, 2022] with three of the agencies that are playing the lead role on implementation of some of our recommendations. If you go into our committee office, you will see every recommendation on our wall, and with color coding showing where they are in the process of implementation. Some have been checked off the list as fully implemented, some are in the process of implementation, and some are still trying to get out of the driveway.
We want to make change so that the institution works better for the American people – so we’ve got to focus on managing our own performance.
I’ll mention one other thing. This may sound a little nerdy, but the other thing we decided to do was: wherever we made recommendations about how Congressional committees ought to work, that we would model that behavior ourselves. So if you watch one of our hearings on C-SPAN, you may have too much time on your hands – but if you do watch one of our hearings, you’ll notice a few things.
One, we don’t sit separated by party. We don’t have Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other. Why? Because when you hear a witness at a hearing say something interesting, your genetic predisposition is to lean over to the person next to you and say, hey, that was kind of interesting, what do you think of that? And in our committee, you lean over to someone from the other party.
Two, we actually don’t sit on a dais at all. We sit around a round table. Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a good conversation speaking to the back of someone’s head. And so we’re trying to actually engage one another and our witnesses in more of a dialogue.
Three, we don’t do five-minute questioning where every committee member gets five minutes to speechify. We try to treat our hearing as a fact-finding mission. So if someone hears something that they find interesting, and wants to further pull on that thread, they just say, Hey, can I pull on that thread a little more? And we don’t put them on a clock. We actually try to get information from the witness.
We’ve also done some innovative things related to staffing. We have a nonpartisan, bipartisan staff. We decided on the front end the problem was too big and the resources were too small to divide between parties and stick half of our team in red jerseys and half of our team in blue jerseys to duke it out all the time. We decided to hire a joint staff, some of whom have a Democratic background and some with Republican backgrounds. But everyone’s wearing a Let’s Fix Congress jersey.
Wonderful. I have two more questions about the recommendations, and then we’ll move to the specific issue, the very wonky issue, of open data standards for legislative materials.
First, are there any recommendations that have been implemented that you’re most proud of–the ones that might have taken the most effort, the ones that have been checked off?
Rep. Derek Kilmer
There’s a bunch that are pretty valuable. I’ll just point to two in the interest of time.
First, one of the concerns that was raised early on was the degree to which this institution is really polarized. The tone is set, unfortunately, from the beginning, where when new members of Congress show up for freshman orientation, much of the orientation process, historically, has been designed to keep Democrats and Republicans from engaging with one another.
As my colleague, Vice Chair William Timmons, explains it, when he showed up for Congress for orientation, they were told, “Democrats, you get on one bus, and Republicans on the other.”
And so one of our recommendations was: stop doing that! Let’s promote some bipartisan dialogue and try to set a better tone from the beginning.
And that’s been implemented. The House Committee on Administration, to its credit, has tried to build in another of our recommendations as well: looking at bipartisanship and trying to work across the aisle, with norms of civility, as a piece of orientation.
Second, an issue that took us quite some time was restoring the power of the purse for Congress, so that where there are projects and priorities where a member is hoping to secure funding for a local community project, that they can pursue that through the appropriations process, rather than having all of the decisions made by executive branch agencies.
Now, obviously, in the past, there were abuses of the appropriations process. And so what we didn’t want to do was just put back an old earmark practice that had problems. And so we spent a ton of time trying to figure out what would a process look like that could be more transparent, that would have more accountability to it, but that would restore the constitutional Article One authorities of the power of the purse, where members of Congress could secure funds for local community projects.
And to the credit of the Appropriations leadership, they did that this year. They incorporated the vast majority of what we had laid out as recommendations. I think that’s a big deal.
Yes. And those are two admirable accomplishments and also indicative of the wide scope of the Select Committee’s modernization work.
Last question about recommendations: are there any that have proved to be a true heartbreaker? Any that you really wish could get over the finish line, but have been proven difficult?
Rep. Derek Klimer
You know, I’m not folding the tent on any of the ones that we haven’t gotten over the finish line.
There’s been a couple related to civility and trying to foster a better culture in the institution. And there’s some ideas that may need a little more time to ripen. The committee’s done significant and important work related to recruitment, retention and diversity of staff. There is still some fruit on the vine there that we can still pick.
Good. Let’s talk for a minute about the notion of digital standards for legislative materials – such that legislative materials can be drafted, amended and handled as Data First. Could you tell us a little bit about that very first recommendation that the Select Committee made in May 2019: the recommendation that the House ought to move to a standard digital format for legislative materials?
Rep. Derek Kilmer
For sure. I think there was an understanding that the legislative process is too often opaque, and that it’s really inefficient.
And so the committee early on had some hearings related to ways to open up the legislative process and to make legislative information more transparent.
As we did that, we learned that there had been efforts underway in the House related to how bills were drafted, and how information was put out to the public.
I had come out of a state legislature that already had a standardized digital format which made legislating pretty simple and transparent. If you were trying to change a law, for example, you could see what was the underlying law and how your legislation would propose changing it.
And I have to tell you, when I got to Congress, I was like: this is like reading Sanskrit! I don’t have a copy of the federal code in my head [so I can’t automatically follow the impact of proposed amendments].
So there was a recognition that one, the process could be made more transparent for the American people if you had a more standardized digital format, improving the public’s ability to understand how amendments would change legislation and what the impact of proposed legislation would be on current law.
But, second, we also recognized that Congress had multiple different digital formats when draft legislation was passed from office to office, and from committee to committee and from House to Senate. It was just incredibly inefficient. And so we made a recommendation to adopt one standardized format for drafting and viewing and publishing legislation, with a goal of both improving transparency and improving the efficiency throughout the lawmaking process.
I’ve got one more question about that. And then I’m going to turn it over to Xcential’s Mark Stodder for a final question about the future of legislative data. Broad question: what is the committee doing to pursue the implementation of that May 2019 recommendation for a standard, a single standard format for legislative data?
Rep. Derek Kilmer
First, we did what was called the Mod Com (Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress) resolution, following the approach of our committee was not just to make recommendations, but to try to make change.
We turned our recommendations into a House Resolution that passed out of the House. And that resolution directed the Clerk of the House to issue quarterly reports regarding the status of the overall implementation, and the adoption of a standardized format for drafting, viewing and publishing legislation to improve transparency and efficiency throughout the lawmaking process.
And her quarterly reports have been showing steady progress, and will continue.
Our goal is to continue to track that progress also mentioned, just since we’re diving into the weeds on some of the nitty gritty of the use of technology.
When we made our final report for the 116th Congress public, we teamed up with the Government Publishing Office to create and print the report using their XPub technology. And the Select Committee is the first congressional committee to use that technology with GPO to produce a committee report that’s way more modern and way more user friendly.
And on top of that, we also featured an interactive website to highlight report findings and recommendations. If folks are interested in what we’re talking about, I would encourage them to visit modernizecongress.house.gov. We’ve really tried to model the type of transparent behavior that we think ought to be more present throughout the Congress.
Wonderful. I’m going to turn it over to Mark Stodder, president of Xcential, for the final question, covering the future of legislative data.
It’s really a pretty basic question. What do you hope to see next, as far as the application of legislative data standards, to make them become a little more real for people two, three, four years from now? How would you like to see the public and members and staff being able to interact with legislative data and legislative documents? Is there a perfect model you see out there?
Rep. Derek Kilmer
I have a few thoughts on that front. One, I hope that as we look to the future, that Congress will have done what we’ve recommended, which is having one standard format for drafting and viewing and publishing legislation.
I think that’ll drive more efficiency in the process. And I think we’ll make the process more open to the American public so that they can actually track this stuff, in a way that demystifies the legislative process.
Because the problem statement isn’t just about easing the transactions between offices, but also about making it easier to follow for the American public – because when legislation is so opaque, people feel more distant from their government. And that’s a problem.
And, the efficiency problem is not just about productivity, but people’s sense of efficacy, and frankly, the responsiveness of Congress.
This may be a slight turn off the interstate, but one of the recent recommendations we made was to create a Congressional evidence-based policy commission, where we hope we could continue to tackle issues related to data transparency, and how Congress uses data to make policy, you know, from soup to nuts.
There’s a real opportunity for Congress to use technology better. If you look across private industry, you see the use of data analytics; imagine weaving that into how legislation is developed.
That still seems a little far away for Congress, unfortunately, but I don’t think it ought to be.
Hudson mentioned the work that we had done on the OPEN Data Act, which applied to the executive branch agencies. But I think the notion of having information that is open, transparent, and machine-readable shouldn’t just be the focus of the executive branch. All of government should have open-source standardized data formats to make sure we’re drafting better legislation.
As we draft that legislation, we should do it in a way that’s more transparent and more efficient.
Wonderful. Congressman Kilmer of Washington’s sixth district and Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, thank you so much for joining us for this interview. Thank you for your time.
Rep. Derek Kilmer
Thanks for having me. Good to see you again.