In the aftermath of the Brexit, there’s a rising sense of imminent political change in the United States. The spectacular, disruptive insurgencies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump illuminated the alienation of millions of Americans from our government and politics.
The British seized their sole opportunity to reset their nation’s relationship with centralized governance from Brussels. Now Americans are seeking ways to reset our centralized governance from Washington, D.C.
The need is so urgent–and the dysfunction so vast—so as to paralyze reformers into inaction. Should we press for constitutional amendments that may never come to pass? Longstanding political gridlock suggests it’s unlikely we could attain the required two-thirds super-majorities in Congress, ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Fortunately, there is one reform that could have an immediate, disruptive impact, without changing the Constitution. Quite simply, we could send the Congress home.
In a single step, we can end the archaic, twentieth-century notion of “professional” legislators. In its place, we can have representatives and senators who live and work in their home districts.
This reform will ensure that legislators serve their constituents. Much of the disaffection with and dysfunction of the Congress results from members succumbing to the ubiquitous interest group culture of Washington.
By contrast, if U.S. representatives and senators live and work at home, they will be surrounded by friends and neighbors. This is far apart from being cocooned in Washington among swarms of lobbyists.
Our legislators would join the millions of Americans who use 21st-century technologies to work remotely. For those occasions that require in-person presence, they can be assembled in Washington.
Much of the disaffection with and dysfunction of the Congress results from members succumbing to the ubiquitous interest group culture of Washington.
The result: Our solons would bring the values of their constituents to the capital. This would disrupt the current circumstances, where they transmit Washington’s values into the country.
Citizen legislators would experience laws and regulations first-hand. That has been lost by full-time residence in the capital.
It’s one thing to sign off on laws and regulations in a distant, almost absent-minded way. It’s quite another to experience the real-world consequences.
A lengthening gulf has emerged between those who enact laws and those who endure the consequences. Populist movements have arisen in that yawning space, from Brexit to American insurgents. Sending solons home would begin to close the gap.
Citizen legislators would be paid at a level comparable to other public service professions, such as teachers. They will no longer have the need for two residences, one in the hot real estate market of Washington.
In return, they would be allowed to work or have businesses where they live. For ethical reasons, such enterprises would be entirely transparent during their government service. They wouldn’t be able to lobby, but they would be allowed to do other kinds of work.
At the same time, congressional pensions would be abolished. Citizen legislators would have no claim on taxpayer-financed defined benefit programs. The rest of us have 401k accounts and similar vehicles. Those who serve us in Washington should have the same options.
Fundraising would be banned while the Congress is in session in Washington. There is no reason why the Congress—or the president—should raise money while laws are being written. At a stroke, this would quarantine legislators from the thrall of lobbyists.
Make no mistake: The radical implications of these changes will roust robust defenses of the status quo.
Some will argue that the work of modern government is so complex as to require that legislators give it their undivided attention—and that they do so in Washington.
This fails on several counts.
First, the 21st century is a decentralizing moment. Just as the internet recalibrates the relationship of consumers vis-à-vis companies, so too it can restore power to citizens via-a-vis government.
The so-called professional legislature emerged amid the centralizing trends of the 20th century. It’s hard to argue that centralizing power in Washington remains a good fit for our time.
Second, it’s simply not necessary for members to do their work in the Capital. Much of what they do today—perhaps a majority of their time—is spent raising money and otherwise serving special interests. That is “work” we can do without.
In addition, Congress is only in session for a small part of the year. The Washington Post reported that the House of Representatives was slated to be working for a mere 111 days in 2016—and that feeble performance includes partial days.
Others will claim that a Citizen Congress would accelerate the longstanding trends of overweening presidential power.
In fact, executive branch supremacy has risen in tandem with the full-time, Washington, D.C.-based Congress. It’s been a major precondition for the special interest occupation of our government.
Statutes are more and more prescriptive—while yielding less and less accountability. Brief statutes such as Glass-Steagall were written with clarity. Legislators and citizens could hold the federal government to account for results.
More recent statutes, Dodd-Frank or the Affordable Care Act, are so voluminous as to be impenetrable. Neither legislators nor the president have read them, much less comprehend them. However, each sentence, each word or jot and tittle is the handiwork of one special interest or another. The emerging whole, though, is often incoherent. It’s left to the president to sort it out in implementation, often in concert with those same special interests.
A Citizen Congress would be well placed to craft simpler statutes and to oversee implementation. Rather than serving a swarm of interest groups, they could focus on the essential, demanding the simple metrics and deadlines that force accountability. Their current “expertise” of pulling wires for the well-connected would decline in value.
Taken together, these changes could be transformative. They could reorient our national politics. Now, Washington’s elected officials and political class work to serve one another. They no longer serve the citizens of the nation more generally. A Citizen Congress would reset Washington, in line with our Constitution.
If Brexit has a lesson for America, it’s that the voters are far, far ahead of the politicians. Having been repeatedly let down, we’re restive, ready to reset the realm of possibility. A Citizen Congress could respond to this demand in a constructive way. It could disrupt our politics, rediscovering our constitutional legacy in the Digital Age.
This article originally appeared in The Hill. Reprinted with permission.