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‘Right Now, You Yell and Scream and You Get Rewarded’
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‘Right Now, You Yell and Scream and You Get Rewarded’

A Q&A with Reps. Derek Kilmer and William Timmons on their work to modernize Congress.

For this week’s Uphill, The Dispatch has a double-header Q&A with Reps. Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat, and William Timmons, a South Carolina Republican. They are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, formed in 2019 to figure out how to make an increasingly gridlocked institution more effective, collaborative, and transparent. 

Last year the committee saw about one-third of its recommendations fully or partially implemented and made progress on another third. And this week the committee released another slate of recommendations that focus on everything from encouraging members to pay for their staffs’ continued professional development to calling for bipartisan orientations for new members.

But thornier questions face the committee as well: Can anything be done about the increasing distrust between parties, mounting threats of political violence, and gridlock on important issues? We tackled those questions in our conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.

The Dispatch: When you sit next to someone versus opposite them, you tend to perceive that person as less confrontational and more friendly. During your committee meetings you don’t sit divided by party. How has that affected the dynamic?

Derek Kilmer: I think people’s natural instinct, when they hear something interesting, is to lean over to the person next to them and say, “Hey, that was pretty interesting. What do you think about that?” In our committee, the person you lean over to is someone from a different party. Second of all, we don’t sit on a dais. I’ve never found that I’ve had good conversations speaking to the back of someone’s head. We sit in a roundtable format and that allows people to look each other in the eye and have more collegial and collaborative dialogue on an issue. The other thing that we’ve done is we’ve ditched the five minute speechifying. Our approach has been, let’s use these committee hearings, as I think committees are intended, and that is to learn something. It is much more of a discussion than something that’s just to be used on social media.

William Timmons: Another thing that we do is if someone has to go early, it doesn’t matter if you’re a senior member or freshman, we will accommodate your schedule and say let’s let her go first. We just gave you all of our secret sauce for how to make a 12-person bipartisan committee work. So obviously, some of these challenges are not going to be immediately transferable to the Judiciary [Committee]. But that doesn’t mean that these are not the things that we should be thinking about.

The Dispatch: Partisanship is what allows both of you to have your jobs. With that comes its ugly excesses—brinkmanship, bad mouthing the other party, gridlock on important issues—but given those incentives, what’s the case for bipartisanship?

Timmons: We’re not going to have a country if we don’t find a way to fix immigration, debt, health care. We have tried to solve the major challenges faced in this country on a party-line vote, repeatedly, and it hasn’t worked. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. To try to get legislation passed into law is, I would argue, just guaranteed to be impossible on a party line vote. 

Kilmer: There are these big forces that drive polarization. Cable news and social media and the combination of how district boundaries are drawn and money in politics. We can also accept that a more civil, a more collaborative institution, is a more functional institution that’s more capable of getting things done for the American people. The committee is not going to be able to solve for cable news or for social media. But I think what we have recognized is there are strategic interventions that can make it a bit better. The American people are justifiably tired of just the gridlock and the political theater that has made it difficult for the institution to get anything done to benefit their lives.

Our approach as a committee was to say okay, we acknowledge this is a problem. People are going to be partisan. People do not need to check their ideologies at the door. But in spite of that, are there things that we can do to make Congress as an institution more collaborative, and help them solve problems for the American people?

The Dispatch: Representative Timmons, your campaign slogan was, “Washington is broken.” If Congress has a hard time agreeing on something like infrastructure, which has had support under multiple Democratic and Republican administrations, do you think that going forward we can only get things done on a party line vote?

Timmons: When you begin the conversation, saying, I gotta get the extreme left and Joe Manchin to agree on something, that was a very, very challenging issue. I’m surprised that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer were able to get to the point that they got to. We need to do infrastructure. And I think a lot of people that didn’t vote for it would have wanted to but [there was] the conflation with the Build Back Better [Act].

In any issue that is facing this country, whether it’s ethics reform, whether it’s voting, whether it is infrastructure, spending, you really got to begin by saying, all right, we’re gonna lose the 10 percent on either end. You’re never gonna get those people to agree with the middle. So then you say, all right we got 80 percent left. So that’s how the system is supposed to work and depending on the balance of power, it is 60 percent towards one side or the other. But again, you’re still pursuing 60 percent. And no point in the last year was 60 percent pursued. And again, I mean, back up to 2017. Republicans did the same thing, so that’s why we have never fixed immigration.

The Dispatch: Let me ask about the issue of succession. Let’s say a tragedy happens because bad actors want to change the makeup of the Congress under current rules. What would happen next? And what can Congress do about that reality?

Kilmer: This is an issue we’re gonna dig into a lot more in the next year. There are a lot of question marks, you know, if there were a large scale event that occurred that incapacitated a whole bunch of Congress. Right now what would happen is a bunch of special elections. And that takes a bunch of time. And so Congress would be basically constituted by whoever’s left. There has been discussions around different ways to do that. And there’s constitutional questions wrapped up in that.

The Dispatch: That issue is unfortunately not totally hypothetical. In January, a mob stormed the Capitol, and that did result in loss of life. With the backdrop of January 6 and concerns about political violence, how does that affect the work that you all do? You talk a lot about civility and fostering a better workplace environment. But is righting that ship really possible?

Timmons: The tragedy that was January 6 is just a stain on our country’s legacy and we are doing our best to not just move past it, but overcome it. I have a number of friends across the aisle that our working relationship was strained. And that’s understandable. I think time heals all wounds, and I hope that we are moving past that. We’re going to hopefully learn from it, make sure it never happens again.

The Dispatch: You were one of the representatives that voted against certifying the election results after Congress reconvened that night. Do you regret that decision?

Timmons: No, no, I mean, not at all. I regret that we were in a position to have to make that vote. I’ve probably spent a couple hundred hours on the subject, and we can talk about it at length if you want to, but at the end of the day, I think the right answer is for us to never be allowed to have that vote. Because, you know, it’s been used by both sides of the aisle repeatedly. And election irregularities that occurred in a number of states more than warrant the same treatment that was given to the process by previous Congresses. But I do think it’s a bad idea to even have that as an option. I think we should get rid of it because it’s a recipe for disaster as we saw.

(Editor’s note: Regarding Timmons’ claims of election irregularities, the Trump campaign and various Trump supporters filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the results in multiple states; none of the suits succeeded.) 

The Dispatch: Rep. Kilmer, can I ask your thoughts on that same point—the division that has resulted since January 6. How do you go about working with those relationships?

Kilmer: I think the vast majority of members of Congress are concerned about political violence. Before January 6, you saw a gunman shoot up a Republican baseball practice. That type of activity just has no place in our politics. Extremism is something that Congress as an institution and the media and others are all going to be grappling with for a long time. Now, do you throw up your hands and say, well, that’s such a gnarly problem. There’s just nothing we can do. Or do you acknowledge, we’ve identified some problems that make it worse. And let’s try to solve for those.

One of the things that we’ve seen is literally from the time you show up in Congress, it’s made tribal. A member goes through new member orientation, and Republicans are put on the Republican bus and Democrats are put on the Democratic bus and much of the orientation process appears to be an attempt to keep Democrats and Republicans from developing relationships with each other. One of our recommendations has been, let’s have new member orientation and foster some relationship building. One of our recommendations is going to be promoting training opportunities for members on things like conflict resolution.

A strategic intervention that could be helpful is some sort of institutional capacity focused on supporting civility and collaboration. There is not an institutional office within Congress where someone wakes up every day and goes to bed every night thinking about how do we make this a more functional and civil place? Part of the struggle in Congress is not just that there’s disagreement on things we disagree on, sometimes it’s hard to move forward, even on things on which we agreed.

So some of our recommendations are in the spirit of trying to look at, how do you move things forward? You know, when there’s broad agreement in the House, is there a way to think about having something make it all the way across the finish line? 

The Dispatch: About your latest recommendations, one talks about acknowledging member involvement in legislation more. Do you hope this will incentivize lawmakers to do more legislating?

Timmons: The three areas that I put this conversation into of how to fix Congress is time—the calendar, the schedule, deconflicting it to give us more opportunities to work together. Relationship building, and that begins at orientation and it goes through your entire time of Congress. We got to have more opportunities to get to know our colleagues, to build meaningful relationships so you can actually engage in this collaborative policymaking process from a position of mutual respect without yelling at each other.

The last one is incentive structures. Something as simple as saying, we’re going to allow members that choose to do so the option of having a Republican and a Democrat lead sponsor. Right now, there’s one name at the top and you have original sponsors and you got co-sponsors. We’re recommending you can have two lead sponsors. Allowing for credit to be given where credit is due, is huge. So, creating a manner through which a collaborative bipartisan endeavor can be memorialized. Those are incentive structures.

The Dispatch: You also have talked about how you want the committee to figure out ways to free up the congressional calendar so that lawmakers don’t spend as much time traveling to and from Washington. What would that look like?

Timmons: We already made the recommendation unanimously at the 116th Congress that we should travel less and work more. In 2019, we had 65 full days and 66 travel days. So we were at 33 weeks of work, and we only got 65 full working days out of it. A travel day is not a working day. 

I tell my constituents that we can’t get anything done because we only work 65 days a year. They’re like, oh, that makes sense. I’m working on a proposed calendar that would allow us to have 77 full days and it only has 48 travel days. The way you do that is you do a five-day work week. Five day work weeks are pretty brutal, but when you’re not in session 33 weeks, it can give you some additional opportunities.

Kilmer: This goes back to the first question you asked about the psychology of meetings. One of the problems that we have right now is the current environment. The average member is on 5.4 committees and/or subcommittees. If you’re there 65 full days and all of your committees and subcommittees are meeting, they’re all on top of each other. We have had hearings where members are in three or four committees at the same time. That doesn’t lend itself to a member showing up and learning something. If you want committees to get back as they are intended to be—to being the place where problems get solved—then you’ve got to change up the structure. Either members just have to be on fewer committees, or we need more time.

The Dispatch: You’ve interviewed a wide spectrum of experts from trauma therapists to marriage counselors. What’s one takeaway that you’ve learned from these experts that you’ve maybe found yourself using, not even necessarily in Washington?

Timmons: It’s a term: conflict entrepreneurs. When I can say a bunch of loud mean things and raise a whole bunch of money and, you know, yeah I’m gonna possibly get reelected and yeah, I’m gonna make, 40 percent of my constituency hate me, but I’m gonna raise millions of millions of dollars. We’re so divided it facilitates these opportunities. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the best way to fix the problem, which is to change the incentive structures to facilitate appropriate rewards to succeeding. Succeeding is fixing immigration system. Succeeding is getting all the debt, making the Americans’ opportunities for prosperity greater. Right now, you yell and scream and you get rewarded. 

Kilmer: That conflict entrepreneur ideas is part of Amanda Ripley’s book, High Conflict. It’s really good.

A woman, she was a marriage counselor and now does consulting to management teams that can’t get along. She sent me this great story. The story was that, in Talmudic literature, a person who dreams of a river and kettle or a bird will enjoy peace in their marriage. Some types of relationships can be compared to a river. One city engages in commerce with another, each supplying with the other ones, in order to acquire what it wants for itself. That’s the lowest level of relationship; it’s based on personal gratification. The next type of relationship is complementary, [like] a kettle, which enables fire and water which are by nature, incompatible, to become partners. And then the third is the bird. It’s a creature of both the earth and the sky in order to function in the air, the bird sacrifices efficiency on the ground and vice versa. It’s the highest level of human intimacy, where each partner no longer sees himself or herself as one of a pair but is part of a single whole.

She said okay, as it pertains to Congress, forget about the bird. She said you may have to forget about the kettle, but maybe you can get back to the river. Part of the problem is Congress is not even transactional anymore in terms of being able to get things across the finish line. I have probably shared the river, the kettle and the bird with 30 people in my life. 

The Dispatch: I wanted to ask a wrap up with a fun question. Your committee’s Twitter account posted a graphic with the committee’s greatest accomplishments in Spotify Wrapped format. If you listen to Spotify, or even if you don’t, what was your most played song of this year?

Timmons: I’ll start because I have no idea what you’re talking about. But we had a wonderful communications team.

Kilmer: I’m looking to see what I played the most. 

The Dispatch: [Spotify] basically tracks your listening habits and it tells you, oh, you were really obsessed with Queen this year or whatever your favorite band or track was.

Kilmer: Do you want to know—it’s funny, and it’s fitting. I’m obsessed with the Beatles documentary. My most played is George Harrison, and I had on a loop My Sweet Lord this year.

Timmons: So music generally I listen to classical chill on Apple. It’s just in the background and is peaceful. And when I’m on flights, I put my Airpods in and I turn it up and I sleep incredibly.

The Dispatch: So the lesson here is that even Spotify and Apple Music fans can chair a committee together.

Kilmer: There you go. I like it.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.