Donald Trump was right about one thing: Washington, D.C., and the inside-the-Beltway culture certainly is a swamp. The interests of the connected, the powerful and the highly ideological are so prevalent, so pervasive, that there’s really no escape. But while “draining the swamp” may be a great slogan, there’s no sign that anything is actually changing. Maybe there’s another way.
It’s often lamented that members of Congress no longer spend time socializing with each other — both between parties and often even within parties. Members spend their time working, voting, raising money and traveling to and from their district.
Imagine a world where members and their staffs worked in their district instead of in D.C.
If we could return to a world where members actually spent time together talking about issues, debating, negotiating, thinking and ultimately compromising on useful ideas, the people’s business might actually get done.
But that world seems long, long gone. Instead, members are mainly captive to the thousands of lobbyists, think tanks, policy groups and other special interests that make up D.C.’s institutional culture. This happens because everyone who needs to be influenced is sitting in one place. They’re easy marks.
What if they weren’t?
Working remotely is not a new concept. Skype, FaceTime, conference calls, texting, emailing, Slack, Snap and a dozen other tools and platforms make it possible to work efficiently from anywhere. Imagine a world where members and their staffs worked in their district instead of in D.C. They’d spend much more of their time with real people, real constituents and real businesses rather than spending most of it talking to lobbyists, consultants, pollsters and think tanks. Their staffs would no longer face the constant temptation of wanting to placate every special interest for fear of not upsetting anyone who might want to hire them one day. Sure, lobbyists would still try to see them, but it’s the relentless, never-ending echo chamber of never escaping their clutches no matter where you go that turns good intentions into group-think mentality.
The culture of D.C. demands that everyone think first about special-interest politics (who gets upset by any given idea or vote, and who gets taken care of). Living in the real world prevents that from happening. Members would use a variety of platforms to meet, debate and vote. And we could require them to attend hearings and meetings around the country so they can start seeing the impact of their work — good and bad — firsthand.
The track record of the last few decades makes a strong case for abandoning the status quo. And the technology exists to operate Congress remotely.
The technology already exists. People with far more tangible responsibilities than arguing and voting manage to get their work done remotely every day. The entire country — no matter where you live — feels like they send far more to Washington than they get back in return. That would change if we literally sent everyone back to their districts, and back to the people they represent. And if we could offer members a way to serve their districts without forcing them into the cesspool, and without forcing them to spend so much time away from their families, we could probably attract higher-quality candidates in the first place.
Of course, critics will say that proximity is crucial to collaboration, to negotiation, to getting things done. They’ll say that if members and staffers aren’t constantly together, they won’t be able to accomplish anything. Maybe so. But what are they getting done now? And when they do manage to pass something, whose will does it really reflect: Those paid handsomely to influence them, or the needs of real people? We all know the answer.
Sure, the White House would still be in D.C., so on those rare occasions when the president and members of Congress get together, that would still take place in D.C. The executive agencies would, for now, still be based there, too, though decentralizing more of the executive branch and forcing it to see more of the people and issues its decisions impact may not be a bad second step in the process.
If we want to give our government back to the people, why not actually return it to the people? If we want to drain the swamp, what better way than by literally excavating it? The technology exists to operate Congress remotely. The track record of the last few decades makes a strong case for abandoning the status quo. And if electing Donald Trump wasn’t a clear sign that the public wants change at literally any cost, I don’t know what is.
What we have now just isn’t working. Washington isn’t working. Complaining about it isn’t going to change things. Actually changing it will.