Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 9, 2013

Make Congress less distant by implementing remote working methods

That Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing is beyond debate. A set of polls from five different polling organizations running from June 1 through July 1 show an approval rate ranging from 9 percent to 17 percent, an indictment of current members and what they are doing if ever there was one.

There is little agreement between Democrats and Republicans in both houses on any subject, and Congress stooped to using the most devious process in recent years to ram through the highly partisan Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, which was opposed by a majority of the American people when it was being considered, and is even more strongly opposed today. Congress acted in opposition to the will of the people, a serious breach of trust.

It has long been the practice for members of Congress to essentially become residents of the Washington D.C. area when they are elected and spend scant time in their home states and districts, and despite their best intentions cannot avoid becoming Washington insiders to some degree, and thus residents of their home states in name only.

Furthermore, many members of Congress fancy themselves as “special,” part of an elite group, and all of them benefit from job-related perks the rest of us don’t have access to, like gold-plated health and retirement programs that ought to be illegal, a big salary and staff, being treated like queens and kings, and who often make decisions that are aimed at satisfying special interests rather than making the best decisions for their constituents and for the nation.

What we see today is a fulfilling of Thomas Jefferson’s prophecy: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild [sic], and government to gain ground,” which he wrote in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1788.

Power corrupts, they say, and the lure of power partially accounts for the increasing domination of the federal government over the citizens. Another reason is that it is much easier for special interests to access our senators and representatives than for the voters that elected them. That statement is not necessarily a slam at elected officials or their staffs, who may work diligently to serve the citizenry, but a criticism of the geographic distance from the official’s home state or district and the small amount of time available to spend back home.

A popular concept about responsive government is that the most responsive leaders are those that can most easily be reached; it’s easier to communicate your ideas to members of the city council and county supervisors than to your congressional representatives. A trip across the street, downtown or to the next town is far more satisfactory than a trip to Washington.

In the beginning, those serving in Congress spent a few weeks in Washington each year and the rest of the time at home working at their jobs as farmers, business owners, doctors and lawyers. Perhaps despite its strong appeal it isn’t realistic to return completely to that arrangement, but two congressmen have suggested a change to the way the House of Representatives works that is a step in that direction.

California Democrat Rep. Eric Swalwell recently introduced a proposal to amend House rules to enable lawmakers to take care of business from their district offices, instead of having to be in Washington so much of the time. His idea involves using the latest technologies like video conferencing for hearings, committee meetings and the like, and a secure remote voting system. As of last weekend, two others had signed on as cosponsors, Republicans Cynthia Lummis from Wyoming and New Mexico’s Steve Pearce, who had previously introduced a similar measure that would require representatives to appear in person for certain required or essential House activities.

This idea has great appeal. Wouldn’t it be terrific for our elected representatives to be able to attend local events regularly? Wouldn’t it be great to find yourself in line at the grocery store in front of your senator or representative, or to run into him or her at a sporting event or a restaurant, and when you visited one of the district offices to find them working there?

Undoubtedly, our officials would have a much better sense of what their constituents think about the pressing issues of the day when they interact with them on a daily basis than when they rarely see them face to face. And it would make more difficult the special interest lobbying that now poisons the legislative process.

Currently, Congress meets only three or four days a week for most of the year, due to holidays and allowances for members to travel to and from home to spend a little time with their families and constituents. Such an arrangement might also result in lower spending for congressional operations, given the need for fewer flights home and back, and in this day of repeated trillion-dollar budget deficits, that would be a plus, even if the savings were relatively small.

It can’t be a bad thing for elected officials to be more available for contact by their constituents. Both accountability and performance would improve.

James H. “Smokey” Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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