To get special interests out of politics, get Congress out of Washington

March 02, 2010|By Ralph Benko

We send our elected representatives far from home to conduct the people's business. We send them to Washington, D.C., where they form what our flyboys (and flygirls) call "a target-rich environment" for the lobbyists and for the political party leadership.

We send them far from us to conduct our business. There was no other way in the 18th and 19th centuries and most of the 20th. In the 21st century, of course, this is absurd.

As things now stand, it is too easy for lobbyists and party leadership to get at our elected legislators. And too hard -- impossible, on a concentrated basis -- for voters to spend "face time" with their representatives.

We plain folks, and our representatives, would be well served by changing the rule requiring our legislators to vote from the floor of Congress. And this could be done by a simple rule change -- no legislation or constitutional amendment required.

The Constitution simply provides that "a majority of each [chamber] shall constitute a quorum to do business" and does not even specify what it means to be "present," much less what that would mean in the 21st century of Web cams, Skype, videoconferencing, broadband Internet or other technologies. The rules of both the House and Senate provide that a quorum is assumed unless a quorum call shows that it is not.

Sheer proximity is a very powerful thing. Lobbyists consider face time the crown jewel of their pursuit. Proximity is a soft force but a powerful one. Our legislators could give themselves permission to vote from their district offices. Not require it; simply permit it. From there, they could tele-speak by Web and tele-listen by Web.

Now, they listen by closed circuit TV and speak rarely enough. They could speak more conveniently, and thus more often, by Web cam than they do now, and from home.

In fact, they could invite their constituents to form a "studio audience," changing the chemistry rather drastically. They could make a district office the home base for most of their staff, instead of housing most in Washington, as they do now.

Travel is such a hassle, and the cost of maintaining two homes is beyond the reach of many legislators. Under such a rule, it is highly likely that a lot of members would vote, more and more often, from their district offices. (Many of their wives, or husbands, would see to it!)

More time in the home district means less in the District of Columbia, and it would be a lot harder and more expensive for the lobbyists to smooth-talk them and for party leadership to twist their arms.

At home, they would be much more in touch with the people who they represent. With much less wear and tear.

Of course, they would still come in to "the office" to confer with one another whenever useful, attend major ceremonial occasions and committee meetings when important issues are genuinely at stake, hear out the lobbyists, raise money, get on TV, even play poker or attend prayer breakfasts with their colleagues. This would tip a balance. Right now, it's easy for the lobbyists to get at them in concentrated doses and hard for constituents to get heard.

Legislators: Give yourselves permission to vote from your district offices: Amend Rule XX. Only the (unfairly maligned) lobbyists and the (fairly maligned) party leadership lose.

For them, our pillows will be soaked with tears. For the people -- and for you -- it's win-win.

Ralph Benko is the author of "The Websters' Dictionary: How to Use the Web to Transform the World," the e-book of which may be downloaded free from This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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