One plan to modernize Congress? A coworking space

By Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call

At the end of a drab hallway on the fourth floor of the Cannon House Office Building, a group of couches holds the promise of a new era. Or at least that’s the idea, said Rep. Stephanie Bice.

In the rigidly partisan place that is Capitol Hill, staffers can go days without speaking to anyone outside their own circles, and these seats are meant to change that. A mural on the wall announces this is a “Staff Collaboration Space,” to make the intention clear.

“We felt like we kept hearing over and over that there was a need for an area where staff can grab a Coke and just sit down and chat,” Bice said in an interview in January, trying out the seating herself.

It may not look like much, just a few pieces of tufted leather furniture and a plant in the corner. But the collaboration space is the kind of small win that Bice is hoping to repeat. Changes like this one can make Congress function better, she insists, one incremental step at a time.

Bice is testing that theory as head of the House Administration Modernization Subcommittee, which rose from the ashes of the now-defunct Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress at the beginning of 2023.

The Oklahoma Republican likes to joke that she got “voluntold” into the job, after she went to GOP leadership to share some of her frustrations as a newcomer to the Hill. “Lo and behold, a couple months later, I ended up as a subcommittee chair,” she said.

Now Bice is walking the line between pragmatism and idealism at a time when public trust in government is low, key players are leaving the House and not everyone believes work like this can make a difference.

Serving alongside her as ranking member is Rep. Derek Kilmer, a veteran of the modernization crowd who is finishing out his last year in Congress after deciding not to seek reelection. Kilmer spent four years as leader of the select panel, as it offered more than 200 bite-size recommendations to improve the legislative branch.

“The desire was not to just make recommendations — it was to make change within the institution,” said Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington state. “Part of the value of the subcommittee has been continuing to press forward on implementation.”

Simply by existing, the subcommittee checks an item off the list, as pushing for a permanent inheritor to carry out its vision was one of the select panel’s final acts. That joins at least 12 other projects the subcommittee helped complete in its inaugural year, according to tracking by the nonprofit Sunwater Institute. With around 60 recommendations closed out in total since 2019, the modernizers can say they’re getting somewhere.

And with the arrival of the breakout furniture in Cannon this winter, they’ve made a dent in “Recommendation 130: The House should explore bipartisan co-working spaces for staff.”

‘Bang for our buck’

In her second year as top modernizer, Bice is pointing to those results and looking ahead to what’s next.

Just 15 percent of Americans say they approve of the way Congress is handling its job, according to a recent Gallup poll, making the brief to “improve Congress” a daunting one. A similarly low number say they trust the federal government to do what’s right, the Pew Research Center found.

Maybe the biggest event for the subcommittee so far was a hearing last April that shook up the Congressional Research Service, an agency known for its high attrition, low morale and slow uptake of new technologies.

As Bice and her colleagues questioned then-Director Mary Mazanec about the dysfunction, their unique style was on display. While the subcommittee may be small, with just four members, it stands out for being bipartisan and conversational, with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats seated around a table rather than divided by party and perched on a dais.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-OK) speaks at a press conference on the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act at the U.S. Capitol on January 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) 

A little more than a month later, Mazanec stepped down. Now led by an interim director, CRS has yet to see a permanent replacement, but observers praised the subcommittee for holding the hearing and dragging long-standing problems into the open.

More typical for the modernizers are small interventions behind the scenes. Bice points to two that may seem trivial but strike at the heart of burnout on the Hill. Lawmakers have long griped that they are expected to be in two places at once on any given day, thanks to overlapping committee hearings. Meanwhile, staffers spend untold hours on seemingly simple tasks, such as requests from constituents to fly flags over the Capitol in honor of their loved ones, that could be tackled more easily with the right tools.

Aimed at easing the scheduling woes is an app called Deconflict, launched last spring by the House Digital Service, a division created in 2022 that reports to the chief administrative officer. And for flag requests, Bice is touting a pilot program of a tool known as FlagTrack.

Funding for some of the projects comes from the Modernization Initiatives Account, which received $10 million in fiscal 2023, up from $2 million.

“It’s a small amount of money, so we have to be very diligent and make sure that we’re using it wisely and choosing projects that get the most bang for our buck,” Bice said.

Looking ahead, Bice said one of her goals is to keep constituents and their problems from falling through the cracks, after 39 outgoing members from the previous Congress, according to her count, declined to pass casework on to their successors. And she named accessibility at the Capitol for people with disabilities as another priority, including exploring temporary access areas as more lasting change is slow to come.

‘An army of institutional stewards’

All that is easier said than done in the halls of Congress, where ideas of any size must find a vehicle to ride on. Even something like installing a couch can take a while.

The timeline of the couches in Cannon, for example, went something like this: After the select panel made the recommendation to explore bipartisan workspaces, a report accompanying the fiscal 2023 Legislative Branch appropriations bill directed the Architect of the Capitol to identify places in the House office buildings that could feasibly be transformed. Bice and her colleagues, overseeing support staff, helped set up a pilot. Now they are seeking feedback to determine next steps.

That kind of painstaking work is unlikely to satisfy those who see an urgent crisis in Washington. As dozens of House members decide not to seek reelection this cycle, at least a few are sounding bleak on their way out the door. This month, retiring Homeland Security Chair Mark E. Green said Congress and the country are “broken beyond most means of repair.”

No coworking space, upgraded software or well-meaning hackathon event can fix what ails the House, in the eyes of some.

Kilmer himself is headed for the exits, but he doesn’t see it that way. “I think the appetite for strengthening the institution is higher now than when we started this work [in 2019]. Members of Congress want to be part of an organization that is more functional and deliver for their constituents,” he said.

“Our capacity to move forward on a lot of those priorities is stymied by legislative dysfunction,” Kilmer acknowledged. “[But] I think what’s been refreshing about this work is it’s not partisan. Congresswoman Bice has come to this with an eye toward strengthening the institution, not toward driving a partisan agenda.”

Kilmer’s own thoughts have turned to things like Congress’ lack of a rapid continuity plan in the event of a mass casualty event as he prepares to unveil a proposed constitutional amendment around the State of the Union address this March. His idea, which would change how the House handles vacancies, is more of a conversation starter than anything else.

But keeping the conversation going has long been his goal. Modernizing the House should be a never-ending process, not just a special effort undertaken every 20 to 30 years, Kilmer said.

Separate from the subcommittee, Kilmer last year joined with another select committee veteran, South Carolina Republican Rep. William R. Timmons IV, to form the Fix Congress Caucus. In part, it’s a way for Kilmer to cast a wider net and recruit more members into the modernization fold.

“I think maybe that’s the main legacy of the modernization work, is we’re trying to create an army of institutional stewards who want to see the institution function better,” he said.


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