Disband Congress

No, I don’t mean dissolve congress. Rather I propose a different way to run a legislature in the modern world.

There would be no capitol. Instead, all members would work in their districts, all the time. And we would put in a bunch of extra nice HDTV videoconferencing systems. The system would be designed to handle meetings, all the way up to a full session of the house or senate, with multiple screens to show amalgamated “crowd” as well as close-up views of the important figures — the person with the floor, the person next to get the floor, the last person to have the floor, the Speaker, the party leaders etc. Members would attend sessions that way, and through a secured channel, vote. There would be screens for semi-private discussions with others during the meeting. Of course all this video would be available to the public, too.

Members, and their staffs, could also videoconference in HD with other members and their staffs, as well as any other government officials they need to talk to. And quite possibly, with a few exceptions such as classified committee meetings, all that video would be available to the public too. For those without the equipment, the old capitol would come equipped with meeting rooms that use the system. “Going up to the hill” would mean going to use one of the rooms.

Members could meet in person of course, but they would need to have a chaperone to assure they don’t make secret deals. Classified meetings would get a properly cleared chaperone.

And they could meet with lobbyists over the videoconferencing system too. And those meetings would certainly be available to the public. Registered obbyists need not and could not come to meet in person.

Of course, the members would get out of touch with beltway thinking. They would lose the serendipity of meeting the right person on the hill, the business done at exclusive beltway cocktail parties. But in exchange they and their staff would live and breathe, quite literally, their district. I can see arguments good and bad about the trade-off but it is not clear that either one is inherently superior. It would hurt the DC economy a bit, and airlines would lose some business.

Strictly speaking, all the transparency rules I describe above, where members can’t talk off the record or without chaperones, is not inherent in the idea of a videoconferenced legislature. One could do that and still allow all sorts of unrecorded conversations. They would figure out ways to have them anyway. What the video system does is enables an easy implementation of an all-transparent, all-recorded seat of government.

Food for thought, anyway.

Plenty of other good reasons for it

It's also good for security; the legislature won't need to get shut down if there's a private plane deviating from its flight plan in the area. Even if lobbyists do manage to meet in person without monitoring, their travel costs (in both money and time) would increase, while the cost of maintaining the representatives drops.

This plan also has the benefit that it can be phased in gradually. Start by plumbing the district offices for videoconferencing, then install the equipment, then start holding sessions that way. Over time, sessions can shift more and more to videoconferencing, and the building in DC would gradually be used only for ceremonial purposes.

Good or bad?

I'm not so sure. Reminds me of the story of Thomas Edison's voting machine,
which could record the yeas and neas more quickly. Congress didn't want it,
someone pointing out to whom that, sometimes, a slow vote is a political
necessity.

That story might be apocryphal, no longer relevant today, not true at the
time, or all of the above. Still, it illustrates the principle.

REAL personal relationships are probably quite important in politics.

I think a good example is physical science. These guys (and they are mostly
guys) are as geeky as anyone and certainly not opposed to new technology. And
the new technology is used (a good example are electronic preprints). But the
traditional conference still exists. It has a different emphasis, though. In
the old days, one would go to a conference to get the latest results. These days,
someone might show a figure, remark that it is an older result, and say that
newer stuff is available on the preprint server. These days, the emphasis is
more on learning about things outside of one's own immediate field (thanks to
better communication, the people in the immediate field are quite familiar). However,
what hasn't changed is the importance of personal, real face-to-face, contact.
If that is important in physical science, then certainly much more so in politics.

Another point is that in many countries, there is no concept of district, the
MPs being elected via a party list etc. Of course, they still live somewhere,
but the concept of working for one's own district directly doesn't exist.

Sessions or parliament, committee meetings etc can be and are televised and/or
available on the internet. So, the concept of meetings visible to all and having
the participants not being together physically are independent of one another.

Better or worse

I don’t doubt at all that meeting in person provides a number of things that meeting via technology doesn’t. But they are not all good. Having all the reps in the same town, seeing one another is what generates the “inside the beltway” attitude, one of us vs. them. It’s possible if reps live and work in their district, they would be more in touch with the people and less in touch with their fellow lawmakers. Which is better?

In a sense, the limitations of the videoconferencing system might be a boon rather than a bane. Not all that they get from their sense of community is good for government.

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His name is Brad Templeton. You figure it out.
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