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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Ricker

    For that matter, I think we should also move from having Congressional districts to having proportional representation. Instead of each state district voting between 2 or 3 candidates, the entire state votes between parties. The party then gets a number of seats proportional to the number of people who support that party. This would allow some of the smaller parties to actually get a couple seats, and it would make our Congress more representative of the make-up of our country.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    I think the online bill editing wiki is a brilliant idea and I wish somebody would run with it. I’m not so sold on the idea that we also stop having a central place where legislators live and work. As a software guy, I’ve worked in environments where everyone was in the same office, and environments where there were teleconferencing calls with international employees. I definitely think that the former makes a smoother working environment. You don’t want to be having all-hands meetings all the time, necessarily, but it certainly makes sense to be able to do it once in a while.

    Hmmm… then again, maybe somebody should talk to Congress about adopting Agile development principles for laws. :)

  • Figs

    What of concerns about hacking? How could we ensure that such a system was secure?

  • Figs

    I personally support something like this, except with Single Transferable Vote rather than straight proportional representation.

    I also support multi-member districts, but not necessarily at the whole state level, which I think would be counterproductive in the case of the largest states. If instead states had to split up into multi-member districts of, say, 3-5 members, at their discretion, with certain demographic categories (urban/rural, majority/minority, etc) having to roughly match up with the state as a whole, then local interests could still be represented while getting the benefits of multi-member districts.

    Also, the House should be expanded rather than statutorily set at 435. And I think it’d be a decent idea to increase the number of Senators for each state to 3, to give each state a senate election every two years and to somewhat dilute the power of individual senators.

  • Cafeeine

    I caught this last night on FB, I’m not that updated on US House procedure, but it seems relevant to your initial query of why only the house speaker can put out bills


  • L.Long

    HaHahAhAhahaha! LOL silly.
    Think about it. They get tax exempt EVERYTHING and some place to be AWAY from the irritation of their brainless & brainwashed constituents. Do you really think they give a schite about them? Why would they want to be at home? With their wives & kids, where would they put their mistresses?? Or if a rabid re-Puke-ian, keep their toy boys?

    They do not care about their jobs except as money & power, they don’t care about efficiency or costs. They like it just as it is, this is way to convenient for power play politics, the re-Puke-ians would not be able to get away with what they are doing.
    Just like we are in a financial distress, try to get the congress to vote for a pay cut, like all the rest of us had to do. Try to get a bill passed that the congress can only get a raise if locked to the national average.
    Good idea but never be allowed.

  • arensb

    But Star Wars Episode I shows the Senators all gathering together in one big room. If it’s good enough for the Empire, it’s good enough for us!

  • arensb

    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.

    I think this is a bigger deal than you make it out to be. And I’m speaking as a techie who hates interacting with human beings. IM, video chatting, etc. are great, but there really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, or being able to walk down the hall (or drive a few blocks, or meet for cocktails) to talk to someone.

    I’m pretty sure that a lot more negotiation than we realize goes on behind the scenes and off the record: if you run into your opponent on the elevator, it’s a chance to exchange a few words that you won’t be held accountable for.

    Perhaps it’s better to wait until telepresence technology reaches the point where business people no longer routinely gather in the same room for meetings, and then we’ll be ready to apply that to Congress.

  • arensb

    I’d also like to see version control for bills and laws. A lot of bills are written as patches to the US Code anyway; it’d be nice if there were a formal annotation system so you could see what the patch does.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    Good ideas. I wonder, though, if there would be some challenges with room in the buildings for expansion, especially if you did not have a distributed congress. Could, for example, the Senate hold 150-156 members (with potential additions of D.C. and Puerto Rico)?

  • Figs

    Could be, but I think those are logistical problems that should not dictate the limits of our ability to govern ourselves. If the gallery needs to be appropriated to make room for more lawmakers in advance of a more permanent solution, so be it.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    If this were such a great idea, you’d expect the business world to have adopted it by now. Obviously, there are such things as teleconferences and work-from-home. But the vast majority of business is done in centralized offices with face-to-face meetings and conferences. There are good reasons for that.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    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…

    This works both ways. Having them in the same town concentrates the targets, but it also increases visibility and scrutiny. Having representatives in far away districts who you never see except via computer makes it extremely easy to bribe them without anyone knowing. Indeed, a Congressman could simply sell his seat to the highest bidder and no one would know.

  • arensb

    In fact, I just ran across an article in science (via Slashdot) about some differences between face-to-face and virtual meetings.
    The short version is that, as expected, virtual meetings lack all those fuzzy touchy-feely aspects of a face-to-face meeting, and so there’s less of a connection. It’s also a lot easier to get distracted by what’s going on in your office and not pay attention to what’s going on at the lectern.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I don’t think we can draw the conclusion that if teleconferencing hasn’t been widely adopted, there must be good reasons for that. A lot of it may be due to simple organizational inertia: We do business this way because this is the way business has always been done, and why change a formula that’s worked until now?

    Besides, to the extent that business has resisted teleconferencing, I think it may be largely due to the fear that remote employees are hard for their bosses to supervise effectively. That isn’t a concern with members of Congress.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    I don’t think we can draw the conclusion that if teleconferencing hasn’t been widely adopted, there must be good reasons for that.

    I don’t believe I made that argument. There are good reasons why full-on teleconferencing is a poor way to run a business independent of anything else. Those reasons are the best explanation for why businesses haven’t widely adopted it. It may be that organizational inertia plays a role too, but as time goes on, that becomes less and less plausible.

    That isn’t a concern with members of Congress.

    Why not? There are party whips, majority/minority leaders, committee chairs and so forth, all of whose job it is to persuade and put pressure on other members. I’m pretty sure they don’t want to communicate entirely through a medium that can be switched off. As they say, you can’t take the politics out of politics.

  • Greetsfrombelgium

    This Belgian was not too amused by your comment. Yes we hold the record for government forming, but pettit little Belgium was not a day without government, all services remained open, nothing shutdown. Not bad for a country where people speak 3 languages (not even including yours) . You have a good idea otherwise but I’d worry about securing it if I were you. NSA anyone? Forgotten about it? We didn’t.

  • David Simon

    The user base for this system would be so small and that we could afford to use truly paranoid measures, such as making special high-security laptops for Congressfolk that they must use for the voting site, and which cannot be used for anything else.

  • Ricker

    And with video conferencing technology, I don’t really think it’s necessary for Congress peoples to be physically present all the time. I think most of them are probably playing Texas Hold’em on their iPhones anyway….

  • JohnH2

    Personally I think that both this should be done and the passing of the first purposed amendment to the Constitution (as originally written) which would make congress something like ten times as big as it currently is. If each representative was representing 50-100 thousand people and doing so from their own district then they would be a lot more representative of their district. There would numerically be a lot more radicals and possibly more parties, but having so many more representatives would mean that wouldn’t matter so much.

  • JohnH2

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Could you explain what the good reasons why teleconferencing isn’t used in business are? So far inertia has been ruled out.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I do think that part of the draw to be in government is the pageantry of it, which is not done nearly as well remotely. Whether pageantry is truly necessary for governing is an interesting question.

  • Steph Schulze

    While no services may have officially shut down in Belgium, it sure did take twice or three times as long to get things like work permits. (I got one in September 2011.)

  • kraut2

    Maybe it is time for the US to stop navel gazing and realize what is happening in the wider world – China had enough and the dragon is spreading its wings:

    “With its seemingly unrivaled economic and military
    might, the United States has declared that it has vital national
    interests to protect in nearly every corner of the globe, and been
    habituated to meddling in the business of other countries and regions
    far away from its shores.”

    Meanwhile, the U.S. government has gone to all lengths to appear
    before the world as the one that claims the moral high ground, yet
    covertly doing things that are as audacious as torturing prisoners of
    war, slaying civilians in drone attacks, and spying on world leaders.”

    “Instead of honoring its duties as a responsible leading power, a
    self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced
    even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas,
    instigating regional tensions amid territorial disputes, and fighting
    unwarranted wars under the cover of outright lies.”

    “As a result, the world is still crawling its way out
    of an economic disaster thanks to the voracious Wall Street elites,
    while bombings and killings have become virtually daily routines in Iraq
    years after Washington claimed it has liberated its people from
    tyrannical rule.

    Most recently, the cyclical stagnation in Washington for a viable
    bipartisan solution over a federal budget and an approval for raising
    debt ceiling has again left many nations’ tremendous dollar assets in
    jeopardy and the international community highly agonized.”


  • Felicis

    Teleconferencing isn’t used in business? News to my company! We use it a lot.

  • Jason Wexler

    So why not go a step farther, if we are going to suggest good but unlikely to pass solutions to what ails our democracy, lets for for direct democracy… e-voting. Our modern technology removes all of the practical objections to direct democracy, so lets skip the step of a distributed Congress and share the power equally, after all in a direct democracy bribery becomes more difficult.

  • Donalbain

    Nescio. Custodes litus?

  • jemand2

    YES! expand the house. That has been an issue for a long time, I think.

  • jemand2

    heck, congressional buildings were *burnt down* once over our history. I know “the building isn’t big enough” is by far the most common response to “expand congress” but it makes utterly no sense to me. Build a new building then!

  • Loren Petrich

    As to expanding Congress, I’m concerned about a large legislature being unwieldy. What’s the experience with legislatures elsewhere in the world? Do they start getting unwieldy at some size?

  • J_JamesM

    I really don’t see that as being any concern. All it would take to defeat backing is a congressional staffer double-checking to see if their congressperson did in fact vote, or not, for the measure.

  • RayL

    That’s actually not as big a problem as you may think. Congress doesn’t do much in the physical legislative chambers. Most of what they do is in committee or subcommittee meetings held at the nearby office buildings. When you see a member on C-SPAN on the floor, chances are the chamber is nearly empty. In fact, the House of Commons Chamber in London isn’t big enough to hold all 650 members.