A virtual Congress?

Wednesday March 27, 2013

More and more business these days is conducted in the virtual world, with a growing number of companies allowing, even encouraging, their employees to telecommute from home. Benefits include happier, more productive employees, as well as reduced costs for various overhead expenses.

Legislation was introduced earlier this week that would bring that virtual world and all its benefits to Congress. U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., introduced legislation that he says will increase accountability and bring Washington home to all constituents by allowing Congress to conduct business in a virtual setting.

Pearce’s resolution "directs the Committee on House Administration to establish procedures and rules for the consideration of legislation by Members of Congress in a virtual setting." In short, the House of Representatives would be able to teleconference and video conference and "implement hearings, conduct debate, meet, and vote" under Pearce’s plan.

He argues that a remote Congress would save taxpayers money by minimizing travel costs, would insulate members from lobbyists in Washington, and make representatives directly responsible to voters.

"Members of Congress can debate, vote, and carry out their constitutional duties without having to leave the accountability and personal contact of their congressional districts," Pearce said in a statement. "Keeping legislators closer to the people we represent would pull back Washington’s curtain and allow constituents to see and feel, first-hand, their government at work."

"Congress’ top priority should be constituents in our home states and districts, not the lobbyists and bureaucrats in Washington," he added.

The House wouldn’t be 100 percent virtual, which would keep the proposal from conflicting with constitutional requirements for it to meet in person in Washington, according to a report from the National Constitution Center. Members of Congress would report to Washington for debate and votes on critical bills and bills that pass a certain threshold of spending. They would also be present in person to attend the annual State of the Union or receive addresses by foreign heads of state and other significant events.

The reaction from online posters has been mixed.

One online poster noted on Slash.org: "I wasn’t real thrilled with the idea at first due to concerns around the integrity of the system, but then I imagined them working from a remote town hall and surrounded by their constituents instead of their peers and lobbyists. I think it could do great things to establishing accountability."

All of that sounds great, but there are a few holes in these arguments. For one thing, removing politicians from Washington will do very little to limit the influence of special interest groups and lobbyists peddling their cause and waving their campaign money under congressional noses.

As for increasing accountability by keeping representatives closer to home more often, the truth is that when politicians go back to their home districts many of them spend their time campaigning for the next election. For members of the House, who only serve two years at a time, campaigning is a constant way of life.

Finally, limiting representatives’ time in Washington will only serve to make the current political stalemate even worse.

Critics of the current Congress point to the constant travel to and from Washington by politicians as a leading cause of gridlock, according to the National Constitution Center. Labeled "The Commuter Congress," most lawmakers use long weekends to travel home and see family members and constituents. Business on Capitol Hill is often limited to three or four days a week.

Many online posters echoed those sentiments.

"One problem with our Congress is that they don’t like each other and they don’t have much incentive to get to know each other. If they were to never actually meet one another, that would only make things worse," notes one poster.

And this from another poster: "They already spend too much time in their home districts. Jet air travel allows them to constantly return to their home base, where they get constant earfuls of whining from their gerrymandered constituents Š so they pop back briefly into DC to work with colleagues who they barely know, and with no motivation to compromise on anything.

"Presumably, this country was set up as a republic for a reason," the poster continues. "One of those would be for the members of Congress to actually spend time working together, for the good of the country as a whole."

That’s how it was back in the beginning.

In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, much compromise was achieved when the delegates met socially after their contentious sessions inside what is now known as Independence Hall, notes the National Constitution Center. Many also stayed in the same rooming houses. The resulting document was the U.S. Constitution, which set up Congress along with other essential institutions of government.


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