June 25, 2020

Select Committee Hosts Virtual Discussion on Boosting Internal Expertise in Congress

Yesterday the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (“Select Committee”) hosted a virtual discussion to examine the importance of congressional staff expertise, and the role that Congressional Member Organizations (CMOs) play in providing Members with additional information and resources to assist them in their policy making and representational roles. The Select Committee was joined by Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America Foundation; Paul Brathwaite, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) under three CBC chairs, and; Maria Meier, former senior leadership staffer and director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative.  

The Select Committee’s first hearing in 2019 was a Member Day, where more than 30 of their colleagues testified and highlighted key opportunities for modernization across the legislative branch. Many of the Members highlighted the growing need for congress to invest more in its own staff. As shared in previous Select Committee hearings, Congress has been cutting its own capacity for decades while the executive branch and corporate lobbying firms have done just the opposite. This discrepancy in resources makes it increasingly harder for Congress to meet its Article One obligations as a co-equal branch of government.

“Over the past several decades, the policy agenda has expanded and become increasingly complex, and in the past couple of months alone we’ve been confronted with a global pandemic, a public health crisis, an economic crisis, soaring unemployment, and comprehensive police reform is also on the agenda. Congress is addressing all of these difficult issues, while simultaneously figuring out how to work remotely…and it goes to show why we need reliable expertise at our fingertips,” said Chair Derek Kilmer (D-WA).

“I know many of us are members of groups like the Republican Study Committee and the New Democrat Coalition, among other caucuses in the House of Representatives that contribute strong perspectives and policy ideas to our discourse. It’s important that we continue supporting the expertise and policy ideas shared by these groups, and really allow the legislative branch to invest in itself to regain our constitutional duties as a co-equal branch of government,” said Vice Chair Tom Graves (R-GA).

Up until 1995, formal member organizations were called Legislative Service Organizations (LSOs). They received funds from member accounts, could employ staff, were sometimes granted office space, could send mail under their own name, and were regulated and overseen by the House. LSOs were abolished and replaced with Congressional Member Organizations (CMOs) in 1995, but CMOs did not have the same “privileges” as LSOs. In the 114th Congress, the House amended its rules and restored some privileges to a limited number of CMOs that meet certain qualifications. In recent years, the number of CMOs and informal Member groups has increased due to the value these groups bring to Member’s legislative work and policy goals. But House Members can no longer use their Members’ Representational Allowance (MRA) to directly support a CMO or informal Member group as an independent entity; provide congressional office space for these organizations; use the congressional frank to support their activities; or accept goods, funds, or services from private organizations or individuals to support their activities.

“The challenges we face as a nation are immense, as is the pressure to act on them. Knowledge is power, expertise is power. And if you want Congress to have power, Congress has to invest in knowledge,” said Dr. Drutman.

“The staff of the CMOs, much like your personal staff and your committee staff, play an important role in the workings of Congress,” said Mr. Brathwaite. He shared a few of the roadblocks that CMO staff often face, such as limited financial resources, lack of official office space, and administrative frustrations surrounding payroll.

“I really believe that our democracy is stronger when it’s fully inclusive and reflective of the people its represents. In addition, I truly believe that our democratic institutions deserve the best and the brightest. Therefore, we need to invest in and develop the talent of those who would commit themselves to public service,” said Ms. Meier.

This was the sixth virtual discussion held by the Select Committee. Since the U.S. Capitol closed to public visitors and guests, and the majority of congressional offices moved to a modified telework operating status, the Select Committee has continued to hold Member-level discussions on committee priorities and ways to continue effectively working ahead of the October 30, 2020 committee report deadline. You can view those discussions here.

 

You can view the discussion here.