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The Case for an e-Congress: Who Says Proximity Ensures Good Governance?

4 years ago
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Spared an attack on 9/11 by the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, a justifiably spooked Congress held hearings less than a year later to address how it might conduct business if its members were unable to meet at the Capitol.

Would an e-Congress be a viable alternative?

That very question upset Donald R. Wolfensberger, an expert on Congress who warned against it. "Building a computer system on which members could not only access floor or committee debates but actually vote on pending questions, will lead to what I call a reverse 'Field of Dreams' scenario," he testified. Rather than, "If you build it, they will come," he predicted, it would be, "Build it, and they will stay away."

Would that be a bad thing?

Skeptics of an e-Congress invoke the intentions of the Founding Fathers, the assertion that deliberative bodies require physical proximity, and the argument that technology isn't an adequate substitute for face-to-face interactions. But it's worth considering whether our elected representatives would serve us better if they spent less time among lobbyists in the capital and more time among their constituents back home. Since significant legal and technological obstacles would have to be resolved to enact such a reform, we can explore without fear that our pondering might too quickly become policy.

Let's grapple first with the Founding Fathers, whose rules and wisdom we're indirectly calling into question. They wrote the Constitution in 1789, decades before the appearance of the telegraph, never mind the telephone, FAX machine and modem. It is therefore true that they intended for Congress to congregate in person, but equally true that they could neither imagine nor choose an alternative system that permitted virtually-present members to deliberate or cast votes.

Surveying America today, is there anything that might cause its architects to prefer a dispersed Congress? Concentrated gatherings are certainly more vulnerable to terrorists with modern weaponry, or even conventional foes, who needn't march on Washington to destroy it. Today's media environment makes it easy to keep up with political debates at the federal level, but doesn't adequately convey local needs in all of America's congressional districts. The modern legislator is also far more likely to conceive of the federal seat as "home" compared to his or her predecessors.

The most significant difference, however, is the pervasive and pernicious culture of influence that now exists in the District of Columbia. Professional lobbyists are the clearest example. Saying that the Founders didn't anticipate their rise doesn't do justice to how profound and unprecedented the changes have been, even in the last few decades. Circa 1975, the total revenue of Washington lobbyists was "less than $100 million a year," The Washington Post reported in a series on the influence of the firm Cassidy & Associates. "In 2006 the fees paid to registered lobbyists surpassed $2.5 billion."

The same series reported another statistic that is arguably more staggering. "In 1975 the rare hiring of a former member of Congress as a lobbyist made eyebrows rise," reporter Robert G. Kaiser wrote. "Today 200 former members of the House and Senate are registered lobbyists."

As professional lobbyists grow ever more powerful, it is increasingly consequential that members of Congress spend significant stretches of time hundreds or thousands of miles from their constituents, but mere minutes away from every K Street firm. An e-Congress wouldn't merely result in legislators more attuned to their constituents by virtue of spending their working lives among them -- it would make influence peddling far more difficult on lobbying firms, who'd find it more expensive and time-consuming to get face-time with multiple senators and Congressional representatives, or to simultaneously court a senator, six members of the federal bureaucracy, a few political journalists, and a dozen House underlings.

Neither should the impact an e-Congress would have on congressional staff be underestimated. Staffers in their twenties and their thirties are enormously influential in shaping the agenda of the men and women for whom they work, and they are, by and large, denizens of Washington. This changes the characteristics of those willing to apply to be staff members -- it skews the labor pool toward people who want to live Inside the Beltway, making a career there. Inevitably, whoever is hired loses touch with constituents, at least relative to a hypothetical staffer who ate, drank and dated among the folks back home, as opposed to living among other District of Columbia politicos.

Removed from Washington, would these staffers be less able to cultivate personal relationships with other members of Congress, their staffs and people in the bureaucracy?

Undoubtedly. And although lost social lubricant would be one cost of an e-Congress, it would be mitigated by an important benefit: fewer folks would get jobs as congressional staffers, put in a few years at a mediocre wage, and cash out by using their contacts as leverage when they negotiate their starting salary at a lobbying firm. Ask yourself whether social cohesion among D.C. insiders results in good governance -- or the opposite.

This would be a positive change.

In any case, face-time and social cohesion among members of Congress are probably overrated commodities (and not only because the Congresses that brought us to Civil War met in person). Is an abiding friendship between two senators necessary if both deem a piece of legislation good for their constituents and the country? Isn't friendship more likely a deciding factor when one legislator is unconvinced that a proposal by his friend is sound on the merits? Mightn't a body that deliberated in a less personal medium reach more objective decisions? Is anyone's mind even changed by the Kabuki speeches given for the C-SPAN cameras on the Senate floor?

Or take the House, where majority and minority whips do their best to get their party members in line. What if the ability to persuade them were diluted by distance? The question is easily turned against those who ask it, for if persuasion requires proximity, shouldn't the lower legislative body reside in proximity to the constituents whose passions it was designed to reflect? After all, these legislators are meant to be influenced by those they represent, not by party bosses trying to pass a bill.

There are stronger objections to an e-Congress. Foremost among them: moving the legislature away from the federal seat might upset the balance of power among the three branches of government. It might also prove more difficult for an e-Congress to act or coordinate on sensitive matters related to national security. Finally, there is the inherent unpredictability in a change so significant. Perhaps it would be best tried in a large state like California, where the governor has already all but abandoned the capital and the legislature is so dysfunctional that an untried reform like this one could hardly make things worse.

Were an e-Congress thought viable, whether due to state-level experimentation or years of productive argument, it would be best to start with the House, the branch that was designed to be closer to the people, and to leave the Senate in Washington, removed from constituent passions and able to serve as a check against power in the White House. The loss of their congressional colleagues to points far and wide would surely remind senators that they'd better watch themselves around lobbyists, lest they lose their Inside the Beltway privileges too.

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