Is It Time for a Virtual Congress?

Legend has it that Washington, D.C. is built on swampland.  While marshes are prevalent, the legend is false, but at the same time, it is figuratively true.  Swamps are messy places -- notorious breeding grounds for all sorts of pestilence.  And though the Centers for Disease Control have probably never heard of it, the malady clientitis has reached epidemic stage within those 68 square miles along the Potomac.

And it's enough to make us all sick.

First encountered in diplomatic circles, the disorder was originally known as going native: a condition where in-country diplomats would begin to regard the officials and people of the host country as clients.  Over time, the diplomats would cease advocating U.S. interests and instead become champions of the host country, even to the point of taking vehement opposition to State Department policies.

Inside Washington's beltway, members of Congress can be expected to come down with clientitis soon after their freshman oath-taking.  The particular way federal lawmakers go native is rather stealthy -- they don't exactly start wearing beads and a grass skirt.  Rather, one has to listen for changes in their speech.  When your member puts on the Washington dialect of bureaucratic noncommittal gobbledygook -- designed to placate both sides of every issue -- you've lost him.

Their constituents long forgotten, members of Congress identify with their clients inside the Beltway.  Having assimilated into the D.C. government-knows-best culture, the "representatives" think of Washington as home.  But unlike diplomats, the pols are not that easy to recall.  The political industrial complex knows how to take care of its own at election time.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Virtual Congress

One idea, notably being advanced by famed investor and adventurer Jim Rogers, is to all but exile the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate from Washington.  More than a decade ago, the idea could hardly be grasped, but with today's modern communication technology already in common use by distance workers, it's not so much of a stretch to imagine our federal lawmakers working from their home districts.

Of course, the move would require a complete overhaul of the way bills move through Congress.  Quite likely, the tired parliamentary system would give way to a modern system of document management much like those used by corporate America every day.  Bills would wend their way electronically through the system and either garner support toward passage or suffer the indignity of the "delete" button.

Lawmakers would no longer be limited by time or space when it comes to making verbal pitches of advocacy or opposition for pending bills.  Rather than running to the floor and jockeying for position, the members would simply record remarks à la YouTube, which would automatically append to the bill as it moves along the process.

Such a system would be more conducive to smaller, more granular legislation, thus hastening the demise of the hated omnibus bill -- the favored vehicle for pork-barrel boondoggles.

Taking Congress virtual may be the dream solution to our current political nightmare, where idealistic reformers get elected, ostensibly to change Washington, only to get sucked in by the machine and turned against their own constituents.

Appealing as it is, before getting carried away by the idea, it might be wise to consider the possibility of unintended consequences.  For starters, it must be admitted that by sending each member back to his home district, the representative will be somewhat isolated -- and that is not necessarily a good thing.

There are legitimate reasons why lawmakers need to collaborate, much of which is done informally and on an impromptu basis.  Modern communications notwithstanding, the technology cannot facilitate that degree of synergy. 

Then there is the problem of security.  Many members have responsibilities on sensitive committees where the nation's secrets are discussed.  While it is technically possible to secure 535 different installations, it is hardly practical. 

Splitting the Difference

The ideal compromise may lie within our state capitals.  Wouldn't it make more sense to carve out some space for our federal lawmakers in each of the nation's state capitals? 

In all but a handful of states, the relocated members could be accommodated with ease.  States with larger delegations would have to build annexes to make room for the new arrivals, but this is a small tradeoff given the advantage of having the state's federal lawmakers in such proximity. 

By bringing congressional members into each state's capital complex, lobbyists -- face it, they will always be with us -- will have to wait in line behind state representatives.  In each of the 50 states, state lawmakers will significantly outnumber members of Congress.  When the federal pols cross the 10th Amendment line, there will be hell to pay.

In a very real way, the change may partially reverse the damage done by the errant 17th Amendment, which, in 1913, ended the appointment of U.S. senators by state legislatures and instituted the direct election of senators by the people.  The effect was to sever the ties of accountability between state governments and the Congress.  Since then, the U.S. Senate became just another House of Representatives, albeit more elite.

As each state's congressional delegation settles in, Washington's hyper-partisanship will fade.  Away from party apparatchiks, the members will bond within each state's delegation -- somewhat bridging the ideological divide.

The Executive Branch, remaining in Washington, will lose a complicit ally the moment Congress packs up and moves away -- in 50 different directions.

Strangely enough, going virtual has national security implications.  The idea comports neatly with the continuity of government (COG) plans conceived in the wake of 9/11.  The idea was to rapidly decentralize Congress in the case of national emergency.  The obvious problem with the strategy is that emergencies are rarely polite enough to announce their arrival in advance. 

Decentralizing Congress before unforeseen situations is the answer to the COG conundrum.  Installing secure communications facilities in each of the state capitals is both feasible and practical.  Today, companies like Cisco and Polycom are installing "telepresence suites" in corporate offices worldwide. 

Far more compelling than simple teleconferencing, telepresence gives participants the feeling of being in the same room with fellow conferees even though they may be continents apart.  All the ancillary technology that would enable a virtual Congress is by now commonplace -- even pedestrian.

The only real impediment to a virtual Congress is the current ruling class.  That they can be counted on to object strenuously is telling.  But those 535 in Congress are outnumbered 13 to 1 by the nation's 7,382 state legislators -- legislators who have lost patience with Washington.

Robert Berry is the publisher of and the author of Amendments Without Congress: A Timely Gift from the Founders and Constitutional Coup: America's New Lease on Liberty.