02 July 2009

A Modest Proposal on Encouraging Members of Congress to Become More Accessible To Their Constituencies and Cut Costs

Upon perusing the starkly informative pages of the Drudge Report, he presents a trio of links to a single Wall Street Journal article on Congressional travel habits.

I contend that these trips, rather than being 'fact-finding' missions, as is often the stated rationale for these expensive junkets, instead they are wastes of time and a drain on the federal budget.

I believe that those folks who voters find worthy of representing them in Congress have a duty to serve their constituency to the best of their ability. I also believe that the best way to serve their constituency is to live among them, quite literally. I propose that we amend the Constitution to change the habits and haunts of our Senators and Representatives. I believe that a few small changes in their behavior will have wide ranging, and greatly beneficial, effects on their service to their fellow citizens.

First, I would abolish the US Capitol as a meeting place for Congress, except for special ceremonial occasions. It would remain as fine piece of architecture, and as a shrine to the vibrancy of the American Experiment, but as a work place for the making of laws, it would cease in that function. Instead identically constructed domiciles would be provided for each Representative and Senator, they would be in their district or state, and they would have webcams (w/ mics) most of the rooms (the bathrooms and bedrooms would remain private, with the expectation that they would always be alone in there). These domiciles would be showcases for modular construction and the latest in green technologies. They would be able to maintain family homes at their own expenses, but Representatives and Senators would live apart from their families, instead they would live in these houses provided to them alone and constantly surveilled, so that the people will always know exactly how they are being represented at any given moment. Members would be required to spend 10 hours a week, 50 weeks a year directly interacting (via the internet, or in person) with voters in the area they serve. All voting and interaction with other members would be conducted via teleconferencing from special rooms set up in each domicile, and for all but defense and security related meetings and hearings dealing with classified materials, every utterance and every interaction between each representative would be recorded and freely disseminated for all to see and hear. As a matter of fact, this amendment would make it illegal for members to meet privately. They are there to represent their constituencies, not to make buddies, and the less contact they have with each other, the more likely they will focus on what their constituents expect from them. Another added benefit would be that by spreading out all our representatives, the cost for lobbying would rise astronomically. No more centralized K Street lobbyist helping to craft (and in large part, entirely write) our laws. Serving our nation should be a humble, and humbling experience, and one that no sane person would want to do for very long. Imposing these living conditions would go along way towards making that a reality.

The second phase of this amendment would address the expensive wanderlust that infects those that serve in the House and Senate. When leaving their domiciles, members will be required to wear tracking devices similar to those used on paroled felons. Members will be free to travel, but they will pay a fee out of their own pocket to do so. There will be no travel expenses paid beyond their own district (for the House) or their own state (for Senators), and instead they'd be charged a substantial penalty for every moment they leave the area they serve (similar to the international roaming charges that can pile up on cellular plans). They will be responsible for all expenses incurred, and they be expected to maintain their 10 hours a week of accessibility, no matter where they are on the globe (failure to do so will result in additional financial penalties). While the first phase and the second phase of this amendment may not seem related, I think it's important to enact both together. If we only limit their movement from DC, then members will just get even more isolated and DC-centric than they already are. By the same token, if we only banish members from DC, then rather than spending more time with the folks they represent, instead they'd use the lack of a central meeting place as an even greater excuse to turn their service into a continuous junket from vacation spot to vacation spot.

What would be the end result of such a reform? We would see only the most dedicated of public servants deal with the privations imposed on them, and for the most part few would extend their service beyond a few terms. Voters would have unprecedented access to their representatives. The focus of Congress would be on service, not on featherbedding or which exotic locale they should visit while charging the bill to taxpayers. Congress would be more difficult for special interests to manipulate and the influence of the shadowy power structure behind the government that has accreted over the years in DC would lose some of its hold on at least one of the branches. Also, we might save a buck or two, and that seems reason enough to mess with the way things are, as it seems members of Congress have no interest in restraining their own habits and spendthrift ways

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