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Nation & World

Is There A Way To Make Congress Work Better?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now for a tale of bipartisanship, friendship and getting results in Congress. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis brings us this story of a Republican and a Democrat who led a new committee and - get this - reached unanimous conclusions on how to make Congress work better.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Last year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy approached Georgia Republican Congressman Tom Graves and asked him to help lead a new committee charged with investigating how to modernize the House. Graves cynically turned it down at first.

TOM GRAVES: I had declined it with the - I guess it's a sad acceptance that this was just going to be another failed attempt by Congress to say they're going to do something that they ultimately don't do. And boy, was I pleasantly surprised by the outcome and the work of this committee.

DAVIS: He relented and, along with Washington Democratic Congressman Derek Kilmer, set out with a mandate to investigate ways to make the House more modern, more efficient and more bipartisan. Kilmer knew it would not be easy.

DEREK KILMER: Fact that Congress, according to recent polling, is held in lower regard than head lice, colonoscopies and the band Nickelback is some indication that the public doesn't hold Congress in high regard.

DAVIS: After nearly two years, the six Democrats and six Republicans on the committee put out a final report in October, with 97 unanimous recommendations on how to change the House. A lot of them involve logistics, like how to better schedule committee hearings. Others are more controversial, like bringing back some form of earmark spending. And some might elicit some eye rolls, like designating bipartisan space in the Capitol where lawmakers can just hang out. Graves said their work was all the more notable because they found broad agreement during these hyper-partisan times.

GRAVES: It all occurred during the longest government shutdown in the history of our country. It occurred during impeachment. It occurred during a pandemic.

DAVIS: It's already had some impact. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's 2021 work calendar reflected the committee's recommendations for a more balanced work schedule. A new member orientation last month included a new bipartisan session on decorum. Two years studying how Congress works has given both men some perspective and hope for the new Congress, in which both chambers will be narrowly divided.

GRAVES: Tighter majorities could produce better results. It's a forced requirement to have to work together.

DAVIS: House Democrats, Kilmer says, will have to be kinder to the Republican minority.

KILMER: To some degree, Congress is not dissimilar to having a new puppy. If you are not able to constructively engage members, particularly the minority, they chew the furniture.

DAVIS: Republicans, Graves says, need to negotiate in good faith with President-elect Joe Biden, something he acknowledges his party doesn't always do.

GRAVES: My hope is that members from my party will embrace that and will look for that as an opportunity to do something that, quite frankly, we didn't do as well as we could have when Barack Obama was president.

DAVIS: Kilmer says good faith won't come easy, especially after over half of House Republicans supported a failed lawsuit to get the Supreme Court to overturn the election results.

KILMER: That's not to say that Congress can't get past that, but it would be dishonest of me to say that that's not something that people are concerned about.

DAVIS: There's no rules change or law that will make Congress suddenly work better. Both men readily concede that. Kilmer says the hardest thing to change is how members treat each other and the institution.

KILMER: We did something very unusual on this committee, and that is we tried to change norms. Everything we recommended that committees do to encourage more bipartisan collaboration, to be more productive, we actually modeled ourselves.

DAVIS: And it's partly why Kilmer wants the committee's work to continue. Graves does, too, but he retired this year. The committee was set to expire at the end of this Congress, but Kilmer asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to keep it going. She agreed right before Christmas. The work of fixing Congress is never done.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.