September 8, 2006
A Modest Proposal for a Telecommuting CongressBy Rosslyn Smith
Many businesses have discovered that there is no real need to keep people in one physical location, in order to effectively and efficiently coordinate their work effort. Telecommuting, the pratice of working from remote locations, be it a client's premises or even from home, offers many advantages. It is long past time for Congress to consider the possibility of applying the lessons learned in the private sector. The benefits mught be numerous and substantial.
Many conservative are ticked off at the Republican majority in Congress. Some have noted that while a few from the class of 1994 actually meant what they said about citizen based government, and showed it by retiring from Congress after two or three terms, many of those who stayed on are now close to unrecognizable as former backers of the Contract with America.
My own opinion is that Washington, DC itself seems to have the power to turn even smart, earnest, well—intentioned conservatives into dull, narcissistic, mealy—mouthed boys and girls who either end up supporting every silly spending program that comes along or who fall in love with their own media image.
It is well known that geography can effect attitudes and behavior. Capitalism first developed in the cooler climate of Northern Europe and to this day much of the tropics lags behind in economic development, often despite a wealth of natural resources. In our own nation, the North developed far differently than the warmer, agrarian South.
Columnist Paul Greenberg, the man who pinned the label Slick Willy on Bill Clinton, once humorously noted that in his state of Arkansas, and indeed all across the South, Democrats tend to live close to sea level, while the self sufficient, independent minded Republicans are more likely found up in the mountains. One is tempted to joke that since Washington, DC was once nothing more than a swampy spot along a tidewater river, no wonder many Republican members of Congress find their brains turning to mud soon after arrival.
On a more serious note, Washington DC was created as the result of a political compromise that if Southern Congressman supported Alexander Hamilton's plans to put the young government on firm financial ground, the seat of national government would itself move to the South. When people move to an artificially—created city, whose sole purpose has always been government, to work every day amid monuments to big government, it should come as no surprise that over time they begin to believe that more government is always the answer and to grow obsessed with the insiders' political game.
Term limits were once proposed as a way to curtail the size of government by preventing this acculturation from happening. With the twin evils of runaway spending and an appalling lack of legislative oversight evident in much of California's term—limited legislature as my exhibit A, I hold that term limits do not automatically lead to smaller government. In fact, they may deprive a legislature of the expertise to say 'No' to government agencies seeking ever larger appropriations.
Another advantage of having legislators staying on for many terms is that some of the people who enact new spending programs will still be around to be held accountable when the ultimate tab for those programs comes due. California seems to be a case study in legislators proposing 'legacy' spending programs, safe in the knowledge the need to raise taxes yet again to pay for the program will fall squarely on their successors.
Instead of term limits, I propose we try a solution based on geography and new communications technology. I suggest the House and Senate be urged to adopt new rules and encourage, or even require, members to use modern communications technology to conduct more of their work from their home districts and less of it from Washington, DC. My theory is that if members spent more time with the voters back home than they spent among the political game players back in Washington DC, Congress will eventually both look and act quite different.
Such technology is already widespread in the private sector. The technology was good enough some twelve years ago that a client of mine who owned a European based securities trading company with several employees was able to run it from Colorado, visiting his office in person maybe once every month to six weeks. He'd get up in the middle of the night, read his e—mail and faxes, make his trades and then be out on the ski slopes or golf course before noon.
Since then we have seen many people effectively telecommute to jobs remote from the place where they preferred to live and rejoice at the positive change it has made in their lives. Some businesses have also taken to eliminating individually—assigned offices, based on the idea that their employees belong either out with clients/customer or at home with family, not back at headquarters talking with each other. With the communications technologies that exist today, our Congressmen and women should be able to do more of their day—to—day work from their districts instead of spending most of the year in Washington DC. More hearings could be moved to remote locations, video conferencing could be used for those that must be based in DC, and secured communication methods could be set up to handle roll call votes.
But what of the need for that hands—on legislator with a strong network of relationships? A good many hearings are sparsely attended, with members coming and going throughout and generally relying on staff for full information about the bills under consideration. I doubt that much would be missed if Congressman participated via a video link instead of being there in person, especially if their staffs remained based in Washington where they could keep an eye on the executive agencies.
Travel schedules could be arranged to accommodate those instances were face—to—face contact actually is crucial, such as the rare committee hearing into alleged wrongdoing where the witnesses' total demeanor can be telling. As for interpersonal relationships helping arrive at compromises, such as the types of negotiations used to reconcile differences in language between the House and Senate versions of a controversial bill, a good many business operations find that periodic retreats followed up with regular communications are sufficient to establish and maintain working relationships among far—flung executives.
My personal suspicion is that a number of very bad things have happened because the personal relationships that develop over our long Congressional sessions are currently far too strong. In the very worst cases, getting along with other members of Congress seems to have taken a higher priority than representing the folks back home.
The ability of a minority of the Senate to stall legislation and the risible anonymous 'holds' individual Senators are able to put on popular reforms or judicial appointments certainly seem to be manifestations of this tendency to put collegiality first. The all—too—human need to get along with those one sees regularly helps feed the spending beast, too. Most people who call on a Congress member want something, and few people are comfortable saying no to a personal appeal. That is why corporations use lobbyists and, more importantly, why every government agency has an advocate on staff called the legislative liaison.
Nor is it easy to always be in disagreement with that amiable person sitting across the aisle. As a result of personal appeals by agency heads and the need to get along, I have no doubt that many a Senator and Representative has ended up supporting a spending program he or she probably would not have agreed to had a mere written proposal been in front of them.
Someone once noted the strong correlation between the explosion in the size of the federal government and the development of effective central air conditioning for office buildings. Before central air, no one stayed in oppressively hot and humid Washington, DC over the summer months if they had a chance to be elsewhere. I suspect there is causation as well as correlation at work here.
The long summer recesses kept representatives grounded in their districts and senators out of the national media limelight. But with air conditioning, members of Congress became free to spend more time in each other's company as well as among ambitious staffers, power seeking bureaucrats, lobbyists and an image—obsessed national media.
This, in turn, tended to attract Congressional candidates who vastly enjoyed the power and spending aspects of the modern legislature and who saw their natural place as being far away from everyday life back home. The direct opposite of citizen legislators, such people can actually be quite two—faced, holding constituents in veiled contempt as they increasingly play to fellow members of the elite political class. To some extent the Internet is helping spot the worst of these sorts. As Tom Daschle discovered, in the Age of the Internet it is difficult to adopt a down home persona on the campaign trail while behaving like an arrogant power broker in Washington, without the voters catching on.
This shift in emphasis from representing constituents towards an obsession with the political game itself is why we need to press Congress to seriously reconsider how its members carry out their duties. One major benefit I can see developing with a work—from—home Congress is that the membership itself should eventually look different.
Executive recruiters talk about how important the location of the workplace can be when selling a candidate on accepting a new position. No matter how good the money and prestige, some people will not accept a position at a corporate headquarters located in a medium sized Midwestern city, while others will turn down positions in New York City or California.
It is no different with Congress, where candidate recruitment for both the House and Senate is almost entirely self—selective. Working conditions very much determine who seeks office.
For example, a sharp, policy—oriented woman who doesn't want to either relocate her school—aged children or spend most of the year away from them might consider running for Congress if it meant being away from the family for only a few days per month. A person who strongly prefers digging into technical details over political posturing may also be more willing to become a candidate, if he felt it would not necessarily doom him to endless time spent socializing with gasbag politicians and lobbyists in Washington, DC. Blatant carpet bagging would become less attractive to the future Hillary Clintons — and the John McCains.
Imagine if getting elected actually meant having to live for most of the year among those one proposes to represent? The impact on one's social life could be devastating!
The national media might be less likely to make a star out of the likes of John Murtha if it meant having to schlump out to Johnstown, Pennsylvania to collect the sound bites. Lobbyists would be stretched thin if meeting with key members of committees meant having to visit dozens of small communities across the nation. They might also argue less persuasively over a Bud and the bloomin' onion versus vintage wine and prime beef at any number of Washington, DC hangouts where the appetizer course alone runs more than the entire tab at your local Outback Steakhouse.
What is to keep a telecommuting Congress from migrating to elite hangouts, instead of back into their districts? Public pressure should suffice in most cases. With a few notable exceptions like the Kennedys, those elected to the House and Senate have tended to keep their cushy vacation homes well off the media radar screen, lest they give the wrong impression to the voters back home. Under the current system, because it is already expected that they will be spending most of their time in Washington DC, excess time spent at a second home is easily overlooked. If voter attitudes shift so that members of Congress are expected to be widely available back in their districts and states, long absences in the mountains or at the beach are far more likely to be noticed and therefore liable to become a campaign issue.
Finally, let me note that people seldom feel or act superior to those they see and work with on a daily basis: They tend to feel superior to outsiders. While familiarity can and does breed contempt, few people adopt those annoying attitudes that others 'don't know how things really are' or 'don't understand how the game is really played' towards their familars.
Such offhand dismissal of input or criticism that many voters complain about receiving from members of Congress tends to be the providence of those who see themselves as members of an elite. Members of Congress who seek to remain firmly grounded in their districts by working from home are less likely to adopt the attitude that they are somehow better than us mere voters that has recently blackened the reputations of several Republicans office holders.
Over time it would begin to work changes on the very culture of Congress by altering both who is attracted to run for office and how they conduct themselves afterwards. Considering the so—called evolution of many in the Republican Congress have under gone, it is certainly worth experimenting with the concept of a telecommuniting Congress.
Rosslyn Smith is an attornery and CPA.