Modernizing Congress: Task Force Suggests Innovative Recommendations

Jan 09 2020
By B. Rose Kelly
Source Woodrow Wilson School

Concerns about the state of Congress have sparked a number of reform efforts. Among these was the creation of a new Congressional committee: the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

To contribute to this effort, the American Political Science Association created the Task Force Project on Congressional Reform, which was co-chaired by Frances E. Lee, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, and Eric Schickler, the Jeffrey and Ashley McDermott Endowed Chair at University of California, Berkeley.

The goal of the task force was to draw on the collective knowledge of 30 Congressional experts from universities across the country and think-tanks and advocacy groups in Washington, D.C.

A final report was produced, which members of the task force presented at a Jan. 9 meeting at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Among the recommendations were:

  • Congress should increase resources dedicated to its own in-house policy expertise. Fewer staff aids are employed today than in the 1980s and 1990s, creating inadequacies in terms of policy innovations and decision-making. The report notes that declines in staffing have been largest on committee staffs and at support agencies such as the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s principal repositories of policy expertise.
  • Congress must increase staff diversity, especially in more senior-level positions. Monitoring compensation and the demographic breakdown among staff could better account for how taxpayer dollars are spent and to identify where the institution falls short in equal opportunity, the report notes. It identifies steps Congress could take to recruit a more diverse workforce.
  • Congress needs to upgrade its institutional technology for communicating with constituents and to support its internal operations. By utilizing current technologies, Congress could improve communications. This is especially important given Congress’s decentralized nature and because Congressional constituencies continue to grow. A working group should be created to identify and disseminate best practices throughout the legislative branch, the report states. An additional subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives could ensure the institution doesn’t fall behind the curve of technological change.

In their roles as co-chairs, Lee and Schickler recruited task force members, organized a set of meetings to identify and debate the issues, and established a series of six subcommittees to study the issues in depth. From there, they developed recommendations and, drawing from the subcommittees, assembled the final report. 

“I was honored to be asked to co-chair this effort and saw the task force as an opportunity for political science to be relevant for real-world questions of institutional reform,” Lee said.

Lee specializes in American politics with particular interest focusing on the U.S. Congress and institutional behavior. Alongside Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, who also served on the task force, she recently co-chaired the Institutions Working Group for the Social Science Research Council’s Anxieties of Democracy Program and co-edited an associated volume, “Can America Govern Itself? (2019). She discusses the volume on Endnotes, a podcast produced by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Additional task force members included Claire Abernathy, Stockton University; E. Scott Adler, University of Colorado; Sarah Binder, Brookings Institution & George Washington University; Casey Burgat, R Street Institute; Josh Chafetz, Cornell University; James M. Curry, University of Utah; Menna Demessie, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; Lee Drutman, New America; Kevin Esterling, University of California, Riverside; C. Lawrence Evans, William and Mary; John Fortier, Bipartisan Policy Center; Bernard Fraga, Indiana University; Marci Harris, POPVOX; Yuval Levin, American Enterprise Institute; Nolan McCarty, Princeton University; Meredith McGehee, Issue One; Michael Minta, University of Minnesota; Bruce Patton, Harvard Kennedy School; Kathryn Pearson, University of Minnesota; Molly Reynolds, Brookings Institution; Jason M. Roberts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Ruth Bloch Rubin, University of Chicago; Charles Stewart III, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Mark Strand, Congressional Institute; Tracy Sulkin, University of Illinois; Michele Swers, Georgetown University; Steven Teles, Johns Hopkins University; and Vanessa Tyson, Scripps College.

Read the final report here.