What if we reformed the insular nature of Washington DC by dispersing its powerful political figures throughout the country? Obviously this isn't a viable idea in the short term, but we've all got quirky, long shot suggestions, and after complaining about the Inside the Beltway culture of ideological movements, it seems like a good time to revisit my quixotic quest for an e-Congress.

An excerpt from a piece I wrote on that subject:

Surveying America today, is there anything that might cause its architects to prefer a dispersed Congress? Concentrated gatherings are certainly more vulnerable to terrorists with modern weaponry, or even conventional foes, who needn't march on Washington to destroy it. Today's media environment makes it easy to keep up with political debates at the federal level, but doesn't adequately convey local needs in all of America's congressional districts. The modern legislator is also far more likely to conceive of the federal seat as "home" compared to his or her predecessors.

The most significant difference, however, is the pervasive and pernicious culture of influence that now exists in the District of Columbia. Professional lobbyists are the clearest example. Saying that the Founders didn't anticipate their rise doesn't do justice to how profound and unprecedented the changes have been, even in the last few decades. Circa 1975, the total revenue of Washington lobbyists was "less than $100 million a year," The Washington Post reported in a series on the influence of the firm Cassidy & Associates. "In 2006 the fees paid to registered lobbyists surpassed $2.5 billion."

The same series reported another statistic that is arguably more staggering. "In 1975 the rare hiring of a former member of Congress as a lobbyist made eyebrows rise," reporter Robert G. Kaiser wrote. "Today 200 former members of the House and Senate are registered lobbyists."

As professional lobbyists grow ever more powerful, it is increasingly consequential that members of Congress spend significant stretches of time hundreds or thousands of miles from their constituents, but mere minutes away from every K Street firm. An e-Congress wouldn't merely result in legislators more attuned to their constituents by virtue of spending their working lives among them -- it would make influence peddling far more difficult on lobbying firms, who'd find it more expensive and time-consuming to get face-time with multiple senators and Congressional representatives, or to simultaneously court a senator, six members of the federal bureaucracy, a few political journalists, and a dozen House underlings.

Neither should the impact an e-Congress would have on congressional staff be underestimated. Staffers in their twenties and their thirties are enormously influential in shaping the agenda of the men and women for whom they work, and they are, by and large, denizens of Washington. This changes the characteristics of those willing to apply to be staff members -- it skews the labor pool toward people who want to live Inside the Beltway, making a career there. Inevitably, whoever is hired loses touch with constituents, at least relative to a hypothetical staffer who ate, drank and dated among the folks back home, as opposed to living among other District of Columbia politicos.

Removed from Washington, would these staffers be less able to cultivate personal relationships with other members of Congress, their staffs and people in the bureaucracy?


The whole argument is in the archives at Politics Daily