Send the House home

These days lawmakers could live in their districts and convene online. Why won't they give up the Beltway?

By David Fine

Published May 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Congressional representatives seem to be drifting ever farther from America proper, ensconced as they are in Washington's insider culture of power, greed, PACs, lobbyists and interest groups. The federal government treated its citizens to a year-long political soap opera of unparalleled proportions, and a Congress of zealots adamantly went forward with impeaching the President, even as its constituents cringed in annoyance and frustration.

So why don't we extricate our representatives from the old boys' network that is the Beltway and demand that they Web-commute -- that they create a virtual Congress?

With the Web's debut in 1994 came prognostications of the role it would soon play in empowering the average citizen, creating virtual government and reinvigorating democracy. Since then, pornography on demand and electronic shopping have exploded. But virtual democracy languishes, remaining banally conceived as improved access to information.

Sure, candidate Web sites are ubiquitous, e-mail petitions make the rounds and tax forms are now available for download -- but these conveniences have done nothing to boost voter turnout (an abysmal 36.1 percent in the 1998 elections, down from 1994) or make the federal government more responsive to its constituents.

Let's push technology to the limits. Envision a true virtual Congress where our legislators live in their home districts and engage in polemic video conferences, proselytizing and pontificating in front of snazzy 21-inch flat-panel monitors, their every twitch recorded by a motion-detecting video camera. They drag and drop proposals and bills for their colleagues to view, scan in news articles, even replay a TV or radio clip at the click of a mouse. Maybe they'll even get to spend quality time with their families, cut back on airline travel time and effortlessly mingle with their constituents.

"Congress is already partly virtual," says Tracy Westen, president of the Democracy Network, or Dnet, which hosts online debates between candidates -- insofar as Congress is using e-mail and the Web to communicate with constituents. "But I don't think we can we get to the point that we dismantle Washington. Personal interactions have a value that can't be matched by the Net."

Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.), a member of the House Subcommittee on Technology, concurs, seeing "all kinds of problems" with sending lawmakers back to work from their districts. Though she's no technophobe -- using her Web site to advertise weekly coffee hours, town hall meetings and other programs to stay in touch with her constituents -- she doesn't support the idea of a virtual Congress.

"A lot of the educational opportunities exist here in Washington. Organizations are willing to come here because they can speak to a large number of members," she says. "I'm going to an event this afternoon on alternatives to military action in Kosovo -- I wouldn't have that chance in my district, and I think that would be to the detriment of policy."

Of course, such an event would be a prime candidate for a live video broadcast direct to legislators' home district offices. And between such programs, lawmakers could regularly amble out of their offices to meet and greet the people they represent -- sidestepping the distractions of special-interest groups in Washington.

But some, like Rivers, say it's not Washington that is the problem. "The members of Congress who are out of touch with America will be out of touch with America irrespective of where they live and how they run their office," she says. "This is not a structure problem, it's an individual problem -- how they view their job."

However, she does agree that a virtual Congress might encourage more people to run for office, by precluding the need to maintain two homes and solving the problem of the congressional commute. It also could make the run for Congress less daunting for people with families. "I have an easy commute," she says, "but there are people commuting 18 hours, like the people from Hawaii. Often the time they spend in their district is just jammed with events. For a lot of members, traveling is an incredible burden and I think that militates against going home, and that's the last thing we want."

Last year, Rutgers University surveyed 50 Web sites devoted to politics or to promoting political involvement for its "Electronically Enhanced Democracy" study, and found that most left a lot to be desired. "Almost all of them, at best, are passive information sites," says Benjamin Barber, professor of political science at Rutgers and author of "Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age." "There's almost nothing in the way of genuine ongoing interactivity, almost nothing in the way of real civic deliberation, which is to say debates where people change their minds." Instead, there are sites like Minnesota's E-Democracy, which hosts political directories and e-mail discussion lists, but doesn't encourage visitors to interact with it.

"I think the Web has some potential which has been entirely overlooked or misused," says Barber, "[but] technologies come to reflect the culture, they don't change the culture. We live in a privatized, commercialized, atomized, consumerist culture and the Internet looks just like the rest of society. Another place to sell things." In fact, sites like the ad-supported, which collects signatures for petitions, have already begun to co-opt "activism" to sell advertising.

As for a virtual Congress, Barber thinks that, far from enhancing democracy, it would instead turn lawmakers into "pure vulgar mouthpieces" for public opinion. Washington, he argues, keeps our Congress from degenerating into a "Lord of the Flies" type of territorial, chest-pounding anarchy: "They leave the parochial prejudices of their constituencies behind and begin thinking about the interests of the larger nation which Congress is supposed to be representing. That is a healthy side of what goes on in Washington."

Elaine Kamarck, a former senior policy advisor to Vice President Al Gore who is now at Harvard University's Kennedy School, says the problem of congressional insiderism is perpetuated mainly by the permanent staff, who "never go home and get yelled at," not the representatives themselves. Kamarck says that congressional staffers who live in Washington for decades "tend to get a bit divorced from reality and filter out a lot of options, saying 'we've just never done it that way.' The virtual Congress wouldn't necessarily solve that."

Wouldn't it? By tearing our representatives away from incestuous relationships between their staff and corporate lobbyists, we might make them more aware of the people's voice -- and the people might also be more encouraged to speak. (It is general practice, commonly referred to as the "revolving door," for congressional staffers to leave to become lobbyists, then go right back to Congress and work for a committee again -- even carving out legislation explicitly in the interests of their former corporate employer.)

Despite the absence of any tangible force driving Congress to go virtual, attempts to enhance democracy online continue. One prime example is Dnet, which is pioneering virtual campaigning.

On Dnet, candidates receive passwords, log on and choose an issue to debate. The candidate can argue in bursts of up to 1,000 words, and attach audio, video, pictures, endorsements and articles. Then the opposing candidate logs on, rebuts and chooses another issue, presenting his or her case. In the 1998 elections, candidates from nine states participated in such debates, according to Dnet president Westen. "Candidates are addressing a much broader range of issues than they are on TV," says Westen. The site also has one huge advantage over TV airtime -- it's free to the candidates.

Sounds like a great idea. However, the big-time politicians do not appear ready to embrace it. The real contenders in California's November elections -- like Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gov. Gray Davis -- merely paid lip-service to Dnet, posting standard campaign blurbs. Candidates in local races may be more apt to participate, though. Three of the four candidates for the school committee in Brookline, Mass., submitted statements to Dnet -- though they did not actively debate.

Other efforts are under way to cultivate greater participation. Rutgers' Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy is collaborating with Yale University on a model Web site for civic deliberation called Civic Exchange. Slated for a debut next spring, the project aims to create an online environment for "genuine civic engagement" where participants select their own moderators. By developing a community feel, the site aims to make participation more focused and less casual than, say, the multi-purpose message boards at Yahoo or the New York Times site.

Granted, we cannot make Congress go virtual any time soon. Perhaps the answer is an occasionally virtual Congress. Just as businesses employ technology to increase their efficiency, we should be thinking about using technology to save our representatives time -- time that could be well spent, not just listening to what the people who elected them have to say, but also encouraging the silent masses to speak up.

And if that fails to produce results, maybe we can just get rid of Congress entirely. "What we may be looking at is not a movement to a virtual Congress but a circumvention of Congress altogether ... a movement to direct democracy," says Dnet's Westen, waxing visionary. "We're putting in place the technology that will make that possible."

David Fine

David Fine is manager of the Electronic Policy Network and a freelance writer.

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