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Congressional Reform

I often see interviews with members of Congress talking about how hard it is to attend all the committee meeting that are scheduled at the same time as important votes and how tough it is on families to be in Washington all the time instead of back home and the irony of Congress always talking about family values, yet operating in a climate which tends to stress the families of the members to the breaking point. Every time I see another interview like that, I always think of the old joke: Question: "Why are you hitting yourself in the head with that two by four?" Answer: "Because it feels so good when I stop."

It really is time for Congress to stop hitting itself in the head.

We could start with voting. Today votes are scheduled, sometimes well in advance, sometimes suddenly to catch the public or the opposition off guard, but in either case the votes are held in a (usually) 15 minute period of time, and members have to physically come to the floor to cast their vote in that time period. The scheduling of votes on particular pieces of legislation is one of the points that causes great quantities of partisan bickering, and the ability to keep legislation from even reaching the floor is a power which is often the subject of abuse. The 15 minute limit causes great schedule pressure. If you think about it, there is no useful purpose to either of them.

Why not let any member of Congress vote on any piece of legislation anytime? If a bill collects enough votes over a period of a week to pass, then it passes. If it collects enough opposition in a week, then it fails, and if it doesn't get enough votes to even be considered, then it just sits there until its week comes along, or the end of the term finally kills it. No one can claim they couldn't get their bill voted on, but no one is obligated to vote on any bill (especially if there have been no hearings or reports on the bill). There are these wonderful things called "electrons" that Ben Franklin discovered which we can now employ to send votes in from anywhere in the world, or even the near solar system. There is no reason members of Congress need to be physically present to vote. Encryption systems and audits can insure that votes are valid without the need for a warm body on the floor.

Speaking of electrons, they can also be employed in other forms of remote communication. If Congress really wants to be closer to their families and constituents, there is no reason they shouldn't build a telecommuting center in each of the 435 districts, and a couple of extra centers in each state and simply spend 90 or 95 percent of their time back in their home districts. They could live and work with real constituents around them, and being scattered all over the country, would not be nearly as convenient a target for the concentration of lobbyists in Washington.

Finally, lets talk about the committee structure. Everyone always says there are too many committees, but everyone wants a chance to be a committee chair, so nobody ever changes anything. It is possible, however, to change things completely and still give everyone a fair shot. Instead of trying to design the kind of fixed grouping of committees we have today, there should be no fixed committee structure at all. Instead of having a dozen committees bickering about who ought to be in charge of some piece of legislation, and making things even worse by giving them all authority, the committee structure should form around the legislation. Each bill should get its own committee, formed for the exclusive purpose of holding hearing and crafting that one bill. When the bill is voted on, the committee dissolves, and its members show up on new committees. By limiting the number of committees each member can be on at one time, you limit the number of possible schedule conflicts. By forming the committees dynamically for short periods of time, with different members taking turns as chair, you distribute the authority much more evenly over all the members instead of giving chairmen the ability to build vast seniority and accumulate an empire over the years.

These are just the best of my common sense ways to make Washington work. Naturally, when you combine these reforms, with the Government By Performance changes (which would drastically reduce the amount of work Congress has to do), and you get a government that works much better.

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Page last modified Mon Nov 24 22:23:29 1997