For the second time, a member of Congress is proposing rule changes that would let lawmakers telecommute to Washington and pass laws without meeting face to face. But is that in the best interests of voters?
The idea of a “virtual Congress” isn’t new and isn’t likely to get a lot of support in the current Congress, but it does raise some interesting issues.
New Mexico Representative Steve Pearce introduced the idea back in November 2010. His latest resolution argues that that a remote Congress is better for citizens, because it puts elected representatives closer to constituents.
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.
Pearce’s argument also states that a remote Congress would save taxpayers money by minimizing travel costs, and prevent evildoers who might disrupt the government with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill by spreading members across the country.
In a 2010 policy document, Pearce provided more details about the plan. For starters, 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.
“Members of Congress would report to Washington for debate and votes on critical bills and bills that pass a certain threshold of spending. Other occasions that warrant they be present in person would be to attend the annual State of the Union or receive addresses by foreign heads of state and other significant events,” he said in 2010.
Article 1, Section 5, Clause 4 of the Constitution requires that if the House or Senate wants to meet in session outside of the Capitol, it needs permission from the other chamber.
The 20th Amendment also requires that Congress “shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.”
Pearce also states that a remote Congress would insulate members from lobbyists in Washington, and make representatives directly responsible to voters.
“Regular, everyday citizens have little-to-no-input as legislation moves through the subcommittees, full committees or floor debate. That is a problem that needs resolution,” Pearce said in 2010.
Last week, he told The Hill that “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.”
However, critics of the current Congress and its underachieving predecessor point to the constant travel to and from Washington by politicians as a leading cause of gridlock.
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.
For example, in the current calendar for the 113th Congress, the House meets four days a week for 26 weeks in the year; its members are never scheduled to work a five-day week. The House will work on 14 Fridays, out of 52, this year.
Former Senate leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle have talked about the lack of personal contact outside of work between Congress members as a direct factor in political gridlock.
“I know many times I would look up on TV and I would see somebody and then the name would come up and it would say ‘member of Congress’ and I’d go ‘I don’t even know who that is,’” former congressman Connie Mack told CNN in January 2013.
A 2011 Newsweek article recounted some tales from prior sessions of Congress, where politicians and their families spent a lot of time with each other outside of the Capitol–and regardless of political affiliation.
“Real legislating—the compromises and deal making that distinguish politics from posturing—happens only among people who know and respect each other,” said author Lisa Miller.
Miller also pointed out two other realities: Some politicians don’t want to be seen as part of the Washington establishment, and it’s easier for congressional members to raise election funds at home.
Back 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. 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.
Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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