Why Congress Should Operate Remotely — even after COVID-19

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Photo Credit: House.gov

How a (partially) distributed, remote Congress could better serve Americans

435 House Districts, 435 Different Stories

Less than 2 weeks from today, on January 3, 2021, 435 members of the United States House of Representatives will take their oaths of office. So will 33 members of the Senate. The other 67 senators were elected / reelected in either 2016 or 2018.

These Members of Congress represent highly varied parts of our country. In the House, the 13th Congressional district, located in New York City, is the nation’s smallest (in terms of land mass).

Adriano Espaillat is the district’s congressman. The 13th District is a 10.2 square mile, densely populated swath of upper Manhattan, and the western parts of the Bronx. More than 730,000 people live there.

Meanwhile, there’s just one member of the House for the entire state of Alaska. Clocking in at more than 660,000 square miles, Don Young’s House district is the largest in the country. Alaska is followed closely by Montana (soon to be represented by Matt Rosendale).

Mr. Young’s district is more than 64,000 times larger than Mr. Espaillat’s, although the population sizes are fairly similar. Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota are also each represented by just one member of Congress. Each of these districts is physically large, and sparsely populated.

Congressional districts also differ quite a bit in terms of income levels. New York City is home to both the richest and poorest Congressional districts in the nation. In the 15th Congressional District, where Ritchie Torres was recently elected, per capita income is just under $18,000.

The 12th Congressional District (located just 10 minutes away by subway), has a per capita income of slightly above $98,000.That’s nearly 5.5 times higher — even though the two districts are just minutes apart. This district, represented by Carolyn Maloney, is home to numerous billionaires, and countless Wall Street executives.

Districts also vary widely in terms of ethnic makeup. The 15th District is overwhelmingly African-American and Latino, while the single congressional district for Montana is nearly 90% white. Some districts are heavily rural (as with Alaska and Wyoming) while others (especially in big cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles) are dense and highly urban.

The United States is a mix of many different people, cultures and classes. Congressional districts (and states, as represented by senators) reflect that.

Members of Congress Are Often Not Representative Of The Country

As different as these House districts are, it’s also fascinating to think about the people who represent them. The Congressional Research Service compiled a profile of the members of the 116th Congress (who will hold office until January 2021). These findings are quite instructive.

94.8% of House Members, as well as 100% of Senators, hold bachelor’s degrees. What’s more, 68% of House Members, and 77% of Senators, have post-college degrees.

In the nation as a whole, 36.6% of women, and 35.4% of men, have a college degree. 13.1% of Americans hold a post-graduate degree. Clearly, the gap in educational levels amongst members of Congress, as compared to the population as a whole, is quite large.

In terms of occupation, it’s not surprising that members of Congress differ considerably from the general public. 50 members of the Senate previously served in the House, 12 once served as state governors, and 7 are former mayors.

Many in the House hail from political backgrounds as well. At least 200 House members served as state legislators, while 70 were staffers in Congress. Of course, there is some overlap between these categories, for both House and Senate members.

In the House, 73 of 435 Members worked in education, while 18 worked as physicians or dentists. 161 Members hold law degrees, as do 53 Senators.

Members of Congress represent such different places. Yet, in most Congressional districts, the majority of people did not go to college. In virtually all of them, most voters never worked in politics or law.

It’s not just education. According to personal financial disclosures, compiled by OpenSecrets, more than half of members of Congress are millionaires, and the median net worth of Members is a bit above $1 million.

To some extent, Congressional wealth is driven by those at the very top. A few dozen very wealthy members of Congress skew the overall numbers.

Data from the 115th Congress (which served from 2017 to 2019), found roughly 1 in 13 Members (over 7%) were amongst the richest 1% of Americans. By definition, just 1% of Americans fall in that category. Clearly, members of Congress are much better off than the average person in our country.

The Problem With Concentrated Elitism

What’s wrong with this picture? In one sense, nothing. By definition, members of Congress are elites. This means they’re likely to have considerably more education (and wealth) than the average citizen.

The stated job of Members of Congress is to make laws. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many are trained as attorneys, or held political office in the past. While one doesn’t need to be a lawyer or politician to craft policy, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

It’s also not shocking that they are wealthier than the typical American. Running for office requires money — often, lots of it.

Now, to be clear, candidates certainly don’t have to fund themselves. Both small donors and huge contributors give billions of dollars to candidates and political action committees. If you’re even somewhat persuasive, and craft a message with decent appeal, you’ll find the money to fund your campaign.

Yet, wealth does afford one certain advantages. If needed, a candidate can fund their own campaign (though that is no guarantee of success).

More importantly, wealthy candidates are likely to know other affluent individuals, who might donate to their campaigns. A middle or working class candidate, however ambitious he or she is, will face challenges in tapping into these networks of support.

At the same time, it is important that we think about the impact of having so many members of the House and Senate, from such similar professional and economic backgrounds, in a single location. Let’s consider other workplaces.

Whether we’re looking at Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, a local restaurant with 5 employees, or an ambitious non-profit, organizations develop cultures. They use shared language, and form certain norms of communication. A community forms. The organization shapes individuals, but the same is true, vice versa.

Congress is no exception. If Members of Congress are in Washington most of the time, we know they’re around fellow Members, who often hail from similar educational and economic backgrounds. They work closely with staff, the overwhelming majority of whom attended college, often graduate school, and share a strong interest in politics.

Members are also likely to come in frequent contact with those who have an interest before Congress — i.e. lobbyists. Given how many powerful lobbyists are former members of Congress, that causes further concentration amongst those whom Members interact with.

In short, there’s a culture around Congress. Yet, we can’t think of Congress like any other typical employer. Members of Congress make decisions that impact the lives of every community, and thus every individual, in this country. Therefore, the culture of Congress matters to all of us.

I believe we need to alter Congressional culture, so that Members ultimately better represent those whom they serve. One of the best ways of doing this, is by requiring Members to spend more of their time working remotely, from their states and districts.

The Permanent Zoom Congress

Even after the COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed, and things return to normal, Congress should remain on an altered schedule.

Specifically, we should arrange for Congress to work remotely half the time, and meet in person the other half of the time. So, if Members of Congress spend 3 weeks together in Washington, they should meet remotely for the next 3 weeks.

Those in Congress serve the people of our country. Being in close proximity to their constituents helps further this mission. What should members do during the time they’re in their districts (or away from Washington)?

In many respects, they’ll probably do the same things they were in Washington. They’ll hold meetings with their staff, and fellow Members, remotely. They’ll research issues which they care about, and wish to advance legislation on.

The one thing that might not happen when Members are in their states / districts, are hearings with witnesses. This is a task which is best handled when Members are together, in Washington, and can interact in person.

It is important that the public be able to observe and attend gatherings of Congress, where serious issues are discussed. This is a fundamental aspect of our republic. While this might be possible through a remote platform, it is best done in person. For this reason, as much as possible, hearings (at least important ones) should be conducted in Washington.

Spending more time in their districts should help Members become better acquainted with their constituents. They’ll have the chance to attend more events in the community. They can meet individually, or in small groups, with those whom they serve.

Through this process, Members can achieve two important objectives. First, they can humanize themselves to their constituents.

When we meet people, and shake their hands, they’re no longer strangers to us. We understand more about who they are, and what they’re about.

If people see those who represent them in the House or Senate more often, they might feel like they know them better. Even if Members and constituents disagree politically, their constituents are less likely to see them as enemies.

Of course, there are exceptions. Partisanship runs deep in our country. Being present, and being seen, regularly, certainly won’t win over everyone. Yet, it might bridge some of the exceptional divide we are witnessing today.

Second, Members will gain an up-close understanding of how their work in Washington, impacts folks back home. For example, when Congress passes a healthcare bill, how does it affect working families in their district? Or, how does not passing healthcare legislation affect constituents?

How do constituents who earn the minimum wage live? Are small business owners able to access the resources and funding they need, to help them create more jobs?

In short, by engaging with those whom they serve, Members can gain a better understanding of how their work in Washington impacts people’s lives. Ideally, this makes members more focused on, and empathetic towards, their constituents. In time, we change the culture of Congress.

The Final Word

You might remember Woody Guthrie’s timeless song “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie’s tribute to our country highlighted the natural beauty and stunning landscapes of America. Guthrie also focused on the rich inheritance which Americans share in common, and how this nation is all of ours.

These days, it feels like we have gotten away from those sentiments. Our nation is deeply divided, and it seems we can’t find common ground. Our elected officials (at the national level) tend to share similar professional, educational, and economic backgrounds. Yet, their profiles are vastly different from so many of us, their constituents.

Having Members of the House and Senate spend more time in their districts / states is not a panacea. However, it will push Members to better understand those they serve, what their needs are — and to help these constituents better understand Members.

Through this process, we can hopefully bridge the politician-citizen gap. This will help us build a more effective government, for the folks who live in Don Young’s district in Alaska, for Adriano Espaillat’s neighbors in New York City, and everyone in between.

Unrealistic? Perhaps. Challenging? Almost certainly.

Still, this is America. There is no excuse to not try.

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