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The Modernization of Government and Politics in the 21st Century: An Interview with Congressman Dean Phillips

Congressman Dean Phillips was elected to represent Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District the United States House of Representatives in 2018, assuming office in 2019. As a member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Phillips serves on the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, the House Committee on Small Business, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the House Committee on Ethics. Consistently praised as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, Representative Phillips is also the vice chair of the Problem Solvers caucus, a bipartisan coalition of representatives. In both the 116th and 117th Congress, Congressman Phillips was honored with the Jefferson-Hamilton award for bipartisanship. He is also a member of the New Democrat Coalition, the LGBTQ Equality Caucus, and cofounder of both the House Capitalism Caucus and the House Diplomacy Caucus. Outside of politics, Congressman Phillips helped build Talenti Gelato, and now co-owns Penny’s Coffee, a small business in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Emma Stroupe: You serve on the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. What are some of the goals that this committee has? How does the committee combat the deeply embedded sense of tradition on the Hill? 

Dean Phillips: There’s definitely a bias against change in Congress. It is a late 18th century institution trying to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Oftentimes, the obstacles encountered by legislators are not because of constitutional mandates, they’re because of the rules set and reset by previous members of Congress that we’ve abided by for generations. 

So, the Modernization Committee is tasked with simply trying to identify the best practices used by legislative bodies. Then, we can pinpoint problems and solutions through surveying our own members, talking to Americans all around the country, and observing other countries’ legislative bodies. For example, I’ll be traveling to Europe later this month to observe both the British and EU Parliaments. We pay close attention to legislative practices and how politicians conduct themselves vis a vis technology, constituent engagement, and so on. The way I see it, we are attempting to redesign congress socially, physically, and organizationally. 

Socially, whether it’s a university, an enterprise, a non profit, or any other organization, if you don’t have people who know each other, trust each other, and respect each other, you simply cannot be a high performing organization. The same is true in Congress. My first week as a Congressman in January of 2019, I was under the impression that we would all, Democrats and Republicans, get together and break bread, get to know each other, and build trust. Instead, leadership on both sides of the aisle focused more on separating us from one another rather than inspiring us to form relationships. So, one focus of the committee is to create spaces in which members of Congress can build trust and bonds and to be more intentional about creating relationships. 

In terms of the physical design of Congress, the Capitol itself was built in 1800. The offices we operate in were late 19th century and early 20th century projects. At this time, there were very few staffers in Congress. These offices are clearly designed to afford a great space to the members of Congress, but very little to those staff members, very few meeting places, very little natural light, and very few examples of using architecture to inspire collaboration. So, we’re looking at ways to improve the physical design of Congress so that we can inspire people to work together and inspire staffers to get out of the office into more collaborative spaces. 

Finally, the organizational elements of Congress also need improvement. Anyone who has seen a committee hearing in Congress knows that we sit with our backs to each other. There are even committees with more than 50 people sitting in one room, and we only allocate five minute blocks of time for people to perform, not actually ask constructive questions. I believe that there’s a much better way to conduct meetings. In the Modernization Committee, we sit at a table together, Democrats and Republicans side by side, instead of on separate sides of the room. Instead of having a time limit, we have a conversation in which any member is free to talk and exchange ideas. Rather than having witnesses sit in front of us, they sit with us at the table. It’s the way anyone would conduct

a meeting if they want to actually get something out of it, not just a performance. 

The other organizational issue is staffing. For generations, we have been paying staff too little, working them too hard, and not making internships accessible to the best and brightest, rather than those that can afford to come to Washington for a summer. 

Overall, the question for staffing is how do we attract the very best in the country to ensure a diversity of perspective, race, religion, and geography? In doing so, we can make Capitol Hill a more robust, high-performing, and inspiring place to work, which we desperately need. 

ES: A lot of Americans are calling for reform all over DC, not just on the Hill. What other aspects of the government need to be modernized? What can Congress do to push for this modernization? 

DP: It’s also time for the three branches of government to get back to their roots. The executive branch has become a policy leader, when the founders intended that the executive branch should be the enforcer of laws, not the inspiration for them. Its focus should be to run the agencies well, to ensure accountability, and to execute the laws of the land. We should also get back to our job in Congress. We should be the law makers, the ones that listen to our constituents and make the policy. And sadly, the Supreme Court has become politicized. 

As modernization relates to the function of our government, I think our founders were pretty remarkable in what they designed. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly the best system I’ve ever read about or discovered. Even still, it has its faults and flaws and needs to be modernized. In terms of the Supreme Court, I think expanding the number of justices is a very slippery slope. I agree that there should be one justice for each circuit, which would make the total number of justices 13. However, I don’t think now is the time to accomplish this. Where would this expansion end if Congress kept flipping partisan control? I do think term limits on justices are a great middle ground. Conservatives are big fans of term limits and liberals want to expand the court. Given this, I think the proposition of 18 year term limits is a viable one. Generally, we should be talking about innovative ideas, like term limits, instead of contentious ones. 

Electorally, I think we should be looking at gerrymandering and modernizing how we do redistricting. Right now, the system is archaic, disenfranchising, and a big reason that the country is so divided right now. The divide is by design of what I like to call the “political industrial complex.” This system thrives off of deeply blue and deeply red districts, and many politicians want to keep it that way. It’s probably the one thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on the most. They don’t want to inspire political competition, which I think the country really needs. 

We also should modernize how we vote. Systems like ranked choice voting and open primaries would open the floodgates to better candidates who would have incentives to broaden their base of support rather than pandering to a very passionate base. I also think ranked choice voting allows people to vote out of hope, not just fear or trying to prevent someone else from achieving office when there’s only a binary choice to be made.

Even with the work that needs to be done, I wouldn’t change the basic construct of our system, I think it works well. We just have to modernize it, the same way every person, every company, in this country does when social change occurs and new technologies 

arise. We should be adopters and innovators, which is what I’m trying to push for with both the Committee on Modernization and as Vice Chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus. 

ES: There is wide sentiment that voters’ rights and needs are being overlooked by politicians as a result of special interest money in politics. From what you’ve observed on the Hill as a relatively new member of Congress, how much do special interest money and constituents’ issues really clash when it comes to policy? 

DP: Money in politics is a disease. The influence of affluence is a significant problem. My colleagues spend 10,000 hours per week raising money in Washington. Frequently, members run across the street after votes or during committee hearings to make calls to donors or attend receptions. This culture is suffocating democracy and disenfranchising people and it’s got to change. I’m the only member of Congress that takes no PAC money of any kind, which is worrisome. 

It’s also an inside game. In a way, money laundering occurs in a political sense. It’s not just the money itself being spent on campaigns or the checks cut to members by PACs. It’s the fact that those with money also command the time of Congress. I would be less concerned about money in politics if there was a mechanism by which people of lesser means, without the ability to come to Washington in organized groups, could get the ear of their members of Congress, then you might convince me that I should care less. But 

that’s not the case, and as a result, some of the most important voices in the country are not heard. We have millions of people in the country that think their votes don’t matter, their voices don’t matter, their perspectives don’t matter. 

I just introduced a bill called the On the Clock Act. It would ban fundraising by members of Congress while we’re in session between breakfast and dinner. So, when everyone is on the taxpayer’s time and dime, it’s time to do the work you were elected to do. This is a small step but I think a lot of reform starts with exposing the truth, and we don’t have very easy mechanisms for people to discover how much money is corrupting politics. I think if they did, it would change things. So, to put it simply, money in politics is a massive problem. It’s also one where people are playing by the rules, so the rules have to change. 

ES: Being a politician is not cheap in terms of travel, campaigning, communicating, and other necessary aspects of the job. How do we get rid of special interest money and still ensure that people with fewer resources can even get a foot in the door when it comes to politics? 

DP: I think any reasonable person who looks at the task of running for Congress would be turned off by the amount of money that has to be raised, no matter the circumstances. But it’s true that if you don’t have personal resources or a Rolodex of potential donors, the task can be particularly difficult. This unfortunately excludes and disenfranchises millions of potentially great representatives, at all levels of government. I strongly believe that we

need to find ways to level the playing field. A great way to do this is to cap expenditures. By limiting the total amount of money that can be spent in elections, you limit the total amount of money even needed for a candidate. It would work as an equalizer. 

I also like public financing. For generations, presidents were afforded public dollars. It’s how Ronald Reagan won the presidency. When Barack Obama ran in 2008, he decided to forgo this system and it changed everything. Now, presidents raise billions of dollars to run races. It’s an unfair system, but I think public financing, capping expenditures, and exposing the influence of money in politics are starting points for reform. 

It’s also important that we find new mechanisms and invite people to share ideas about how we can inspire people, particularly younger candidates, to consider pursuing a race for Congress. Against all odds and with these hurdles of fundraising, it makes for a daunting task which is really problematic. It’s up to people, students and constituents, to raise their voices and elevate this issue. If we don’t, it’s going to keep happening and remain a problem. 

ES: As a small business owner and a Congressman, what does small business look like post-pandemic, in a time of such economic and social turmoil? What does small business policy look like and how has it changed? 

DP: This is a great time to start a small business. Whenever there’s economic and market disruption, it’s time to take advantage of it and start something new. Small business owners and entrepreneurs are the foundation of this country and will continue to be. They provide the most jobs, act as the backbone of countless committees, and they allow people to pursue their American dream, whatever that may be. 

I love my work on the Small Business Committee because it’s about capital provision to people who have big dreams, but not big resources. It’s quite a metaphor for politics—people with dreams but not enough resources. I want to see a government that builds a bridge, and that’s where the Small Business Committee comes in. Anybody who’s willing to take a risk and spend their time, money, and energy creating jobs and pursuing a dream should be a great focus of Congress. 

Reflecting on Business Day back in elementary school, it was a profound experience, whether you start a lemonade stand or a car washing business. We should be teaching young people all over the country about what it means to start a business because ultimately that leads to independence and wealth creation. This especially applies to people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not exposed to entrepreneurship. 

Another important aspect of expanding small business to more people is employee stock ownership. The nation needs to be one that shares success, but also inspires ownership. When people own something, they treat it with more respect. 

It is Congress’ responsibility to not just ensure equal outcomes, but also to ensure equal opportunity. It’s true of economic policy, social policy, and it should be true in electoral policy as well.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.