Congress: Fix it or start over
By: David Coughlin
To say that Americans have lost confidence in Congress is a huge understatement. Congress approval ratings of 12% are at all time lows, with disapproval ratings of 84% at all time highs, while 56% of Americans surveyed thought replacing everyone in Congress and starting over was the best alternative! Gallup found that Congress was rated the lowest of all professions. People do not trust politicians in general, and Congress in particular to represent the best interests of their constituents. Our Congress was designed in the 18th century based on a lawmaking branch of citizen legislators, who served for a short time prior to returning to their original vocations. Service to the country was viewed as a privilege and not a vocation. Our Congress has not kept up with development in society, transportation, communications, and technology and have disconnected from their constituents. It is time for Congress to reengineer itself to participate in a 21st century republic.
When our government was first designed, the United States was composed of only 13 colonies on the East Coast. The District of Columbia was created as a centrally location for the federal government to communicate, collaborate, and legislate. Since that time, the country has grown dramatically and technology has transformed society and business across all industries. However our Congress has not kept up with these changes. With today’s technology, there is little reason for politicians to spend a majority of their time in Washington. Teleconferences can avoid the need to face to face meetings. Remote collaboration can be enabled by wide area networks. Speeches can be delivered from home offices. With adequate security, electronic voting could easily be collected over the internet. Convening physically in Washington would only be required for perhaps one week per quarter and for ceremonial purposes. The impact of this technology would be that legislators would no longer have a need to relocate to the Washington DC area and disconnect from their constituents. Power would then be decentralized back to the home districts, enabling ready access between the people Who Serve with the people They Serve.
Serving in Congress was envisioned as an honor, a temporary duty, not a career. The question is whether this country can return to the original design of a “public servant.” There are things we can do to return to this idea. Considering the lack of respect for our current Congress, maybe it time to institute term limits capped at no more than 12 years for federal offices (two six year Senate terms, six two year House terms, or three House terms and one Senate term). The average Congressman represents 700,000 constituents. The last time the Congress was resized was in 1910. Maybe it is time to increase the number of Congressman to approximately 600 so each one represents only 500,000 constituents. When these new Congressman are added, that would be a good time to align the districts back by municipality, aligning with state and local boundaries, and not be gerrymandered districts. The Senate has become a partisan chamber of Congress driven by political party wants and needs rather than state interests. A final change to be considered would be to repeal the 17th Amendment and return o the original design of Senators selected by their state legislatures. A return to a citizen legislature representing both the people and their states would improve accountability and return power to our republic.
The way Congress operates leaves a lot to be desired. Each session of Congress should begin with all members required to recite the American Creed, to reaffirm their commitment to the Constitution and to the country. With transportation and technology advancements, there is no reason why Congress should not be in session for 200 days each year. Working primarily from their home districts allows the work week to include the normal business week. This extended term can end sessions by election day, thus eliminating any lame duck sessions. All meetings would allow remote attendance, with meeting participation recorded and available. A much needed change is to restrict legislation to no more than 100 pages, written in plain English. All legislation must be restricted to single topic, with amendments only related to that topic. All legislation must include clear cost benefit analysis, with any needed funding identified and committed. All legislation must also identify Constitutional authorization and justification. Earmarks and set-asides must only be submitted for consideration, if packaged for individual vote. Final legislation must be posted for review at least three calendar days prior to the voting window opening. Another change would be that Congress can not adjourn until the budget is passed. All voting will be electronic and collected in a fixed period of time. Congress writes the laws and collects the revenue. The length and complexity of legislation must be replaced with shorter, more understandable legislation.
A citizen legislature was the original design model, and businessmen served in Congress for a short time prior to returning to their prior vocation. As a temporary employee, politicians should be paid only a salary while in office. Politicians must then participate in Social Security like all other Americans, purchase their own health care like all other Americans, participate in their own retirement plans, and they must abide by all laws they impose on the other Americans. All compensation changes must be voted on by direct proposition at election time. Performance compensation can include increases based on such metrics as economic growth, debt reduction, and employment levels. Compensation decreases can also be awarded based on such metrics as trade imbalances, budget deficits, and unemployment levels. This way Congressmen will have “some skin in the game” on their performance. Ensuring Congress is subject to the same rules and regulations as their constituents would address the perception of a Ruling Elite.
There is no reason for politicians to be held in such disrespect. Investments in information technology would enable legislators to serve from their home district and maintain some connection with their disillusioned constituents. The culture of government must be reset back to the original design of citizen legislators who serve for a short period prior to returning to their original vocations. Maybe we can finally put the public back in the republic!
David Coughlin is a political pundit, editor of the policy action planning web site “Return to Common Sense,” and an active member of the White Plains Tea Party. He retired from IBM after a short career in the U.S. Army. He currently resides with his wife of 40 years in Hawthorne, NY. He was educated at West Point (Bachelor of Science, 1971) and the University of Alabama in Huntsville (Masters, Administrative Science, 1976).