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Have lawmakers telecommute

By Dave Churchill

Austin Daily Herald publisher

Tough choice ahead for members of Congress, who are being asked to vote to stop themselves from getting a pay raise. Back in the 1980s, Congress set it up so that members get an automatic “cost of living” pay raise.

This year, the Senate voted to halt the automatic increases. Some members of the House are urging their colleagues to do the same, citing the bad economy and ongoing wars in the Middle East. If Congress halted the raises, pay would be frozen at the current $174,000 per year.

So the tough choice in an election year: Accept another year’s pay increase, even though vanishingly few constituents are so fortunate, or suspend the increases.

One reason that the matter even comes up is that there’s a general consensus, at least among Washington types, that senators and representatives need to be paid quite a bit because of the need to essentially maintain two residences; one back home and the other in ridiculously expensive Washington, D.C.

It’s just one of the costs of our current legislative system, which is based still on the world as it was in the 18th Century – that is, letters transported at the speed of a horse were the only form of long-distance communication. Clustering everyone in one city was the only way to get the business of government done.

Back in the 18th Century very few — if any — made their livings as lobbyists, working full time to influence the laws of the land in order to enrich various interest groups. Now, lobbyists exert enormous influence on lawmakers, a job made simpler because lawmakers are all grouped together in one place, an easy target.

Taken together — costs and the non-helpful influence of lobbyists — these are good reasons to get our elected officials out of the capital. The technology needed to link up committee members, and even the whole House and Senate, via videoconference, telephone, e-mail and other instant communication is widely available and inexpensive. It would save us all a pile, and improve what Congress does, if lawmakers could live at home and work in their own districts, “commuting” to work via digital signal.

It might also improve the quality of representative, since the ego-rush of  being part of the Washington elite would be diminished. There would be fewer luxurious dinners and fewer perks of most other kinds, since constituents would probably be dismayed if they could actually see those things which are now off in distant Washington, D.C.

There would be another major benefit to bringing our lawmakers together electronically while they stay near home: It would be easy for regular folks to have a voice in and input on what is going on. As it stands, getting the ear of a representative at a key time such as right before a vote, requires the kind of access that is available mostly to lobbyists and others who get paid to hang out in Washington.

For those who are working regular jobs in the rest of the country, lawmaker is out of sight and so, frequently, out of mind.

Bring the process home, put our representatives and senators in their districts full-time, and it would mean a change for the better. We might even avoid health care reform that turns out, a month after it becomes law, to  be bad for the vast majority of Americans.

In this day and age, there is no benefit – and a lot of downside – to putting our lawmakers together in Washington. Have them telecommute. We’d all be the winners.