Ellen Ratner is the White House correspondent and bureau chief for the Talk Radio News service. She is also Washington bureau chief and political editor for Talkers Magazine. In addition, Ratner is a news analyst at the Fox News Channel.More ↓Less ↑
I go to a lot of Christmas parties. I love them! Because I cover politics, the discussion at these parties often turns to how Washington is broken. This year, the conversation reached a full crescendo. The parties were in full swing as the Senate passed the payroll tax bill and the House did not. “What is going to happen?” I was asked, as if I somehow could see the future. I gave my usual answer that I give whenever Congress is in town late during the Christmas season. “Congress doesn’t want to come back to Washington” or “The husband or wife is on the phone with the kids and the family pressure is on the member to get something done.” Sure enough, this year was no exception.
Members of Congress are people, even if they are also politicians. They have kids and grandkids and husbands and wives, and it does not sit well with them at this time of year to have them in Washington, D.C. There is the Christmas play, and Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim who have come to visit. The next-door neighbor has planned a cocktail party with your friends, and your spouse is not very excited to go alone. Pressure is on, and that bill that you felt so strongly about suddenly fades with the days of the season. It’s Christmas, and no one wants to be in Washington, D.C., far away from home.
So, what did Congress do this year? It went directly to the easiest trick in the book. It decided to do things by unanimous consent. It means a few members of Congress get up in the chamber and pass a bill. It only takes a few minutes and happens while the member is out shopping, going to the Christmas play, watching a sporting event or cooking with the family. There’s no heavy lifting.
Why, if this important bill passed with just a few members showing up in the chamber, can’t most of Congress’ work happen while members are home? I am not suggesting that all bills happen by unanimous consent, but if such a big bill can get passed while members are in their home districts, then why can’t others?
We live a very technological era. There is face recognition technology, fingerprint and iris readers, complicated sign in verifications. Why can’t we use some of these so that members can vote while at home? If the idea is to be in touch with the voters, then why does everyone need to come to Washington, D.C., for every vote?
I am not suggesting that we do a virtual Congress. There are real reasons for people to work together and make decisions and get to know other members from around the country. But, the money that would be saved by having Congress in town a whole lot less is staggering. Members would not be traveling back and fourth each weekend, and those terrible fundraisers that members have to go to every night would not happen. The influence of “power breakfasts,” aka interest groups seeking to influence legislation, would not be as prevalent. The wear and tear on the body of the members traveling home every week would also be saved.
We live in the 21st century. We no longer elect someone to stay in Washington for months at a time. The founders never intended for Congress to be a weekly commute. It is time we get real and looked at the realities of how legislation can get passed, the fundraising/influence peddling that now occupies members’ time in Washington and the broken game of partisanship in Congress. Have members vote from home, come to Washington for real legislative meetings and save us all from watching the dysfunctional show we saw this December. Let’s move Congress to the 21st century.