Why Not a Distributed Congress?

I’ve just gotten back from a vacation in Europe, where the news coverage of the ongoing American government shutdown vacillates between incredulous amusement and horror at the depths of dysfunction to which our country has sunk. (Then again, I was in Belgium, which still holds the world record for the longest span of time without a government, so don’t get too cocky, Europeans.)

Based on public statements from a majority of Democrats plus some moderate Republicans, there are enough votes to pass a “clean CR”, funding the government without conditions – but Speaker of the House John Boehner, under pressure from extreme conservatives who want to keep the government shut down, won’t allow a vote on that. That’s why some House Democrats are trying to bypass him with a discharge petition, which allows a floor vote without the speaker’s approval. I thought this was an excellent idea, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the moderate Republicans who said they’d support a clean CR promptly deserted.

I have no idea how this crisis will be solved, or what’s going to happen with the even more serious threat of the looming debt ceiling, when half of Congress is run by Republicans who refuse to govern as a matter of principle. But I do wonder: why do we even have a person who gets to decide what bills can be voted on? It seems anti-democratic to give that power to just one elected representative. Why doesn’t every member of Congress have equal power to do that?

I realize this rule used to serve a purpose. It’s a relic of a time when a legislature had to meet in person to debate and vote, and so there was limited time to conduct business and some things had to be prioritized. Under those conditions, there had to be rules about who could talk, for how long, and who could introduce what motions.

But this practice is just that: a relic, a ceremonial tradition. There’s no longer any reason why members of Congress have to be in the same room, or even the same city, to conduct business. It’s completely possible to introduce, debate and vote on bills by teleconference. And for that same reason, there’s no longer a justification for having just one member who can control the agenda of the whole body.

Here’s my proposal: have a website where any member of Congress can post the text of their bill, and the members who want to vote for that bill could append their names at the bottom. When a majority of sitting members have signed off on a bill, it passes. Simple! It could even be a wiki-like website where any member of Congress can propose alterations to another’s bill. Obviously, legislative assent wouldn’t carry forward; if I cast my vote for version 1.0 of a bill, I’d have to explicitly sign off on it again if changes were made and it became version 1.1.

If we had a system like this, we’d eliminate the pointless logjams caused by having to squeeze all legislative business into an artificially finite schedule. A legislature could get just as much done as its members wanted to. And it would have other advantages as well: for one thing, it would be easier on the legislators, who’d be able to live at home in their own districts and be closer to the people they represent, rather than constantly commuting to Washington, D.C. and incurring the pointless expense of maintaining two homes (or even more bizarrely, sleeping in their congressional offices).

Plus, a geographically distributed Congress would eliminate a single tempting target for foreign attack or terrorism. It would also, not incidentally, mean less influence for lobbyists and less possibility of corruption. I imagine it’d be much harder to grease palms or make backroom deals when all the members aren’t in the same town to be wined and dined at once, and schmoozing them would require shuttling all around the country. It could still happen, but it would be much harder to do successfully.

Other than its historical value, there’s really no reason anymore why there has to be such a place as Washington, D.C. where the members of government all gather. The one possible disadvantage I can see is that in-person contact might still be useful in building the kind of professional rapport that makes bargaining easier. But even that’s easily addressed: just have the lawmakers all convene for a grand legislative conference, say two or three times per year. It could be in D.C., or it could move around the country on a fixed schedule, the way the old circuit court judges used to do (hence the name).

Obviously, sweeping changes to our system of governing aren’t going to happen now, when our country is being run by a gang of cultists who think even allowing the basic business of government to take place is a disgraceful compromise. But a few years down the line, when the GOP has collapsed, it might be a reform to consider.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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