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Thursday, December 31, 2009


Journalist Conor Friedersdorf poses the idea of an E-Congress, in which members would stay in their constituencies, and use electronic means to deliberate and cast votes.  He discusses counterarguments and potential advantages:
Let's grapple first with the Founding Fathers, whose rules and wisdom we're indirectly calling into question. They wrote the Constitution in 1789, decades before the appearance of the telegraph, never mind the telephone, FAX machine and modem. It is therefore true that they intended for Congress to congregate in person, but equally true that they could neither imagine nor choose an alternative system that permitted virtually-present members to deliberate or cast votes.

Surveying America today, is there anything that might cause its architects to prefer a dispersed Congress? Concentrated gatherings are certainly more vulnerable to terrorists with modern weaponry, or even conventional foes, who needn't march on Washington to destroy it. Today's media environment makes it easy to keep up with political debates at the federal level, but doesn't adequately convey local needs in all of America's congressional districts. The modern legislator is also far more likely to conceive of the federal seat as "home" compared to his or her predecessors.
The most significant difference, however, is the pervasive and pernicious culture of influence that now exists in the District of Columbia. Professional lobbyists are the clearest example. Saying that the Founders didn't anticipate their rise doesn't do justice to how profound and unprecedented the changes have been, even in the last few decades.
This idea should make for good classroom discussion.  The terrorism argument has weight.  On 9/11, United 93 may have been heading for the Capitol when the passengers fought back.  But a major consideration is whether an E-Congress could truly be deliberative.  As we discuss in our chapter on Congress, there are multiple venues for deliberation on Capitol Hill, including informal discussions among lawmakers and staff.  It might be difficult to have those discussions electronically.   And instead of limiting the power of interest groups, a dispersion of Congress might just change their tactics.  That is, groups would shift resources to mobilizing members and supporters at the grassroots -- activity that is largely exempt from lobbying-disclosure rules.