According to an NBC poll, over 70% of Americans are fed up with Congress.

“A whopping 93 percent believe there’s too much partisan infighting; 84 percent think the special interests have too much influence over legislation; nearly three-quarters say that not enough has been done to regulate Wall Street and the banking industry; and an equal 61 percent complain that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress aren’t willing to compromise. And the percentage who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction now stands at 58 percent, the highest level of Obama’s presidency.”

This is the kind of anti-congress sentiment that fuels talk of tea parties and term limits. Maybe it’s time to send them all home. Below is a piece from the WSJ (1992) that suggests a creative way to do just that.

The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 1992

Congress, Come Home
By Christopher Manion

The next time you see your congressman, ask him where he and his family live. Most likely he’ll say `Washington,’ and that answer explains the dismal condition of Congress as it lurches, panic-stricken, toward elections this fall.

To most representatives, `reform’ has meant using every dodge to perpetuate themselves using taxpayer money, and to plan retirements designed to maximize sweetheart pension deals and to keep their `campaign’ funds for personal use. They cultivate contacts (and cast votes) designed to create post-Congress jobs as million-dollar lobbyists. With encouragement and funding from the special-interest groups, they do everything they can to keep the party going. As one insider put it, they knew when they came here that Washington was a sewer; the trouble is, they wind up treating it like a hot tub.

If Congress can’t put its own house in order, the American people will have to. They can do it under a Choice in Representation plan that allows them to elect representatives who, instead of moving to Washington, would live in their districts. There, they would do the people’s business–and much of their congressional voting. It’s easy. It’s legal. It would break the back of the Washington power lobby. And it’s the only way that the folks back home can rein in a Congress totally out of control.

The plan is simple: The member now votes by inserting a card into a voting machine on the floor. A simple rules change would let representatives vote that way not only in Washington, but from their home district offices. There they could explain each vote to constituents and the local media; there, day after day, the local folks could see how much time the member makes for them vs. how much he spends with donors and lobbyists.

Widespread support for term limits reflects the electorate’s desire to rein Congress in, but too many good people are unwilling to serve even for those few years. They do not want to uproot their families, leave their friends, churches, schools and neighborhoods behind, and move to the nation’s capital, where police and firefighter unions run ads trumpeting `the highest murder rate in America,’ where there are more lawyers than people, where housing prices are astronomical, and where the public schools are among the worst in the country. In fact, the only people who move to Washington willingly seem to be the fortune-hunters, professional politicians, bureaucrats, foreign diplomats, lobbyists and special-interest groups that make their living spending other people’s money.

They’re the ones your representative spends most of his time with; day after day they brief him, lobby him, take him and his staff to lunches, dinners and the ever-present fund-raisers. If you want to exercise your constitutional right to petition your government, you’ll have to take time off from work, pay round-trip air fare and sky-high hotel rates, and try to get onto your congressman’s schedule. Most likely, if you can’t spend thousands of dollars on a lobbyist (usually a former member or staffer), you won’t be able to see the member personally. He’ll be too busy `doing the nation’s business.’

Most voters don’t realize how little time the average member spends on the floor of the House. Most of the time he watches the proceedings on his office TV set like any C-SPAN junkie. At night he goes to a home that is as insulated from the real world as his office is. His family lives among neighbors who make their living spending taxes, not paying them; his children usually go to private schools (and in Washington these can cost as much as an Ivy League education). When the representative loses or retires, he will most likely stay in Washington and lobby. `Home’ for him has become a campaign state of mind.

The average member today spends about three weeks in Washington for every week at home. With the adoption of the Choice in Representation initiative, that ratio could easily be reversed. Mothers of families who have balanced budgets for years would be able to serve in Congress without leaving their friends, neighbors and even their children behind. Such no-nonsense representatives should know all about putting the House in order.

Apart from voting, the average member’s presence is most `required’ in Washington for committee and subcommittee hearings. There were more than 5,300 such meetings in the 101st Congress (1989-90), most orchestrated dog-and-pony shows with professional witnesses and pre-ordained outcomes. A new Congress could easily organize the few necessary hearings with the same efficiency that businesses in every congressional district use to organize their affairs.

In such a regimen, the average representative could easily accomplish his Washington work in one week per month. A modest dormitory for members would eliminate the need for buying a house in Washington (they wouldn’t even need a pay raise). Members who had acquired a disdain for their district and the interests of their constituents, or who were reluctant to move `home,’ would have to change or, more likely, retire (or lose). In the meantime, a new breed of representatives could go to work on the nation’s agenda.

For them, cleaning up the mess in Washington would be hard enough. They shouldn’t be forced to live in it too.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Christopher Manion lives with his wife and daughter on a small farm on the Shenandoah River, where he runs an intellectual-property business and writes a weekly column for The Wanderer, America’s oldest national Catholic newspaper. He has taught religion, politics, and international relations at the University of Dallas, Catholic University of America, Boston University and, most recently, Christendom College. He received his Ph.D. in Christian Political Theory from the University of Notre Dame and served for many years as the staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Chaired by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC).

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

11 COMMENTS

  1. How about this:
    1. The House of Representatives is chosen by lottery.
    2. The Senate reverts to the pre-17th Amend. (I think!!) and is elected by the sundry state houses.
    comments?

    • Bob,
      I’m all for repealing the 17th amendment (you remembered correctly). No lottery. Some people are better suited to lead. We need to discuss ways to encourage candidates of talent and virtue. Obviously, this requires an electorate inclined to elect such people.

  2. Mark,

    I do hate to argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel, never-the-less, the lottery thingy, for the lower house works, I think, predicated on the intelligence and related personal characteristics of our run-of-the-mill parasitic congressperson. My point being that we “the People” really do stand a chance of getting a better class of people via the lottery.
    Re: “talent and virtue” I would select someone along the lines of a JOhn Randolph while you might perfer a John Kennedy…so who’s right? Better off with a lottery, I think!

  3. One other point. I’m really not all that impressed with the people doing the voting…if you know what I mean!

  4. Bob,
    Ink by the barrel? And that from someone constantly spilling it? Hmm.

    Anyway, maybe I’m more hopeful that good people can be elected (and in fact are elected). The point of the WSJ piece is that many a good man (and woman) are changed by too much time in DC.

    Besides, democracy (in one form or another) is the only game in town. Agitating for something else is a non-starter don’t you think?

  5. Some people are suited to rule; unfortunately, they are not always the persons suited to run. For example, I have been elected to public office five times, usually beating both the odds and the powers that be. But no one who knew me would say I was suited to rule.

    I don’t think the problem is with the people we elect, but with the structures under which they rule. It’s a systemic problem, and doesn’t change much with the personalities.

  6. The appearance of democracy is the only game in town; the reality of democracy quit the city a long time ago.

    By the way, I agree that the senate should not be elected, but I think it was a mistake to give it the same legislative powers as the house. Were I rewriting the constitution, I might give the Senate supermajority a veto over congressional bills, but no legislative powers of its own. Rather, it should function as a Senate, a kind of board of directors which audit the books, report on problems, investigate the operations of the executive branch, and deliver a “state of the union” report each year. I would also make them responsible for the judiciary, appointing both judges and the attorney general.

  7. Mark,
    I do love your optimism, spoken like a man with children to raise.
    As you know we have, or are supposed to have a republic, not a democracy…democracies are always on the cusp of the dictatorship…which may be our current condition.
    Our republic, as you know, depends on an informed electorate which is a rather depressing thought given the condition of our culture…a condition of which our enlightened FPR bloggers frequently remind us. Thus, my comment re: choosing reps by lottery (I reviewed a book from Great Br. some time back on the issue) which I really think is superior than having them voted by a poorly edumacated and semi-incontinent electorate…at least we’d be getting rid of them every two years!
    As far as “good” people coming forward I do think there are a few but most folks are put off by the thoughts of making out with political class so they don’t put themselves forward.
    As per the article: sure, they can stay home..at reduced pay!

  8. Mark, I agree it’d be better for our representatives to spend most of their time in their districts. A place does change you over time, especially if your character is particularly susceptible to certain changes.

  9. Great idea. Unfortunately, I think there’s not going to be any kind of change like this — real substantive change, that is — until there is a crisis we can’t spend our way out of. Until the bells toll, the requiem begins and reality sets in. The current crisis gave people in power an opportunity to change the conversation – but politicians on both sides are too spineless to do it. Where are the true statesmen and women (and the informed electorate)? It seems the bells tolled for their kind long ago.

  10. I have worked for one of the congressional campaign committees, and character doesn’t always count for us to support you. We mainly look at the money situation, meaning we prefer someone who is a “self-funder” or has the ability to raise a lot of money. If a candidate is either of the two, he will get the committee’s attention and support for the election. I have seen many candidates who are of a finer character than most, but can’t run a campaign because they lack resources (money). There are some candidates we have supported that I believe should never be in office, but the mission of a congressional campaign committee is to increase their party’s number of controlled seats in the House or Senate at all costs. See this past year’s special election in NY-23 as an example of a committee supporting a horrible candidate.

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