July 13, 2020


Modernization of Congress Series

Among the critiques often levied against the current House of Representatives is that too much power is centralized in the hands of party leaders; neither committees nor rank-and-file members, critics argue, have enough influence over the legislative process. While there are reasons to believe that centralized processes may have their own advantages—they can be, for example, effective at resolving legislative impasses—the focus on consolidation of legislative power also obscures the fact there are some features of the modern House that are not centralized enough.

Administratively, Congress is described as being like 535 small businesses, and individual member offices need flexibility in how to structure themselves to best handle their legislative responsibilities and to meet the needs of their constituents. But there are certain administrative functions that would be better handled in a centralized way. The Select Committee has made a number of recommendations in this vein, including creating a centralized human resources HUB for offices, updating the staff payroll system, collecting regular institution-wide data on pay and benefits, making a number of changes to the House Information Resources office, developing a clearinghouse of best practices around constituent engagement, and updating travel expenditure policies.

One of the major obstacles to reform in Congress is the zero-sum nature of power in most circumstances: a change that empowers someone new almost always means that someone else is giving up that influence. Often, when reforms are proposed that seek empower rank-and-file legislators, they are met with opposition from leaders who are reluctant to forfeit some of their own authority. Notably, the exceptions to this trend—that is, circumstances in which rank-and-file members would prefer for someone else to hold power—are ones in which more centralization allows them to avoid blame or having to make difficult decisions. While it is possible that some offices may see the power to handle certain administrative functions as an important source of influence they are hesitant to give up, many likely see them as ones on which they would prefer more support and guidance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted why and how further action to streamline House administrative operations would improve the functioning of the institution. As several experts in the technological challenges facing Congress wrote recently, “the House was not prepared for remote work…to the credit of the Committee on House Administration (CHA), the institution adjusted quickly…[but] issues remain.” To the extent that the House is planning for a longer period of remote work in the near term, and potentially trying to equip itself for future events that might result in the need for arrangements in the future, centralized administrative operations are also valuable as part of a broader effort to ensure continuity of the institution.

Importantly, making sure the House continues to make progress on improving its administrative operations can continue even if the Select Committee’s mandate does not get extended beyond the 116th Congress. The Committee on House Administration’s jurisdiction includes technology issues and human resources and management matters, and could build on much of the work of the Select Committee in this area. CHA and the Select Committee have already collaborated effectively to release a set of reports generating from the latter’s work. Ensuring that it has the capacity to do so, however, may require an investment in the Committee’s own capacity, including more staff and financial resources. The draft appropriations bill for the legislative branch released by the House Appropriations Committee recently pledges new resources to the cause of modernization—including $2 million for the newly created House Modernization Initiatives Account. As the bill makes its way through the rest of the legislative process, maintaining these higher funding levels is vital; enhancing Congress as an institution in seemingly small ways often involves making bigger, harder choices that may be politically difficult.

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