Could the plague bring reform to Congress?

US Capitol building

The latest China Plague (at least the fourth to originate in the People’s Republic since 1957) has set off discussion in Congress as to whether members of the House and the Senate should be allowed to vote remotely.

They should, and for reasons that go far beyond the need for social distancing when the coronavirus is loose in the land.

Plague or no plague, the real question should be why should Congress continue to convene in the Capitol (the building), or for that matter in the capital (Washington, D.C.), when it could conduct all of its business remotely?

Conducting the business of the Congress by video conferencing and the internet would have advantages that extend beyond keeping members from spreading the coronavirus to each other during quorum calls. It would allow for a profound and long-overdue restructuring of how Congress does business, starting with allowing for an increase in the size of the House of Representatives.

Currently the House of Representatives consists of 435 members. There is nothing magic about the number. The size of the House of Representatives was set by law (not by the Constitution) at 435 in 1929, ostensibly because that was the maximum number of Congressmen who could be seated comfortably in the House chamber.

Failure to expand the size of the House (or the House chamber) since 1929 has led to a near tripling in the population of the average congressional district, from about 250,000 in 1929 to about 720,000 today. That alone tells you why the cost of running for Congress, and the influence of money in politics, has soared in the last century. It also tells you why Americans have less and less personal contact with their congressmen.

But if the House of Representatives were to start conducting its business via videoconferencing, it would no longer have to let the size of its membership be defined by the size of its meeting room. It could, in fact, limit the size of congressional districts to a size that was contemplated at the time the Bill of Rights was drafted — no more than 50,000 citizens per congressional distirct.

(There was even an attempt to write that number into the Constitution when the Bill of Rights was sent to the states for ratification. The original bill had 12 amendments, not 10. Two of the original 12 were not initially ratified. One of these, the one stating that a congressional pay raise couldn’t take effect until after the next congressional election, was ratified on May 5, 1992, more than 202 years after it was proposed. The other had been intended to limit the maximum population of congressional districts to 50,000, but the wording of the amendment was botched; it ended up saying that 50,000 people could be represented by no more than one congressman, which meant that a single congressman could still represent more than 50,000. Most state legislatures chose not to consider it.)

But if Congress were to conduct its business exclusively online and never set foot in Washington, congressional districts could be made much smaller, maybe even to 50,000 people each.

If this were to be done, the size of the Congress would expand from 435 to 6,600.

The City of Boulder is currently part of Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes all or part of 10 Colorado counties and has a population that in 2016 was estimated at 804,000. Boulder’s population is currently estimated at about 107,000. If the size of congressional districts were limited to 50,000, the city would have two representatives in Congress and a slice of a third.

A congressional district that consisted of roughly half the homes in Boulder would be small enough that a candidate could personally knock on most of the doors in it. In other words, it would be possible to mount a congressional campaign in which the largest costs were shoe leather and a relatively small number of leaflets. Talk about getting big money out of politics.

But wouldn’t a 6,600-member House of Representatives be too big and clumsy to function as a deliberative body?

No, it wouldn’t, especially if it leveraged the new ways of doing business that video conferencing would allow.

Start with floor debate on major legislation. Currently such debates are not 435-member free-for-alls. They are highly structured affairs to which a limited amount of time is allocated, and for which each side lines up teams of speakers and appoints floor managers who allocate microphone time to members of their teams. Such debates could easily be conducted via video conferencing.

Most of the actual crafting of legislation takes place in committees and subcommittees. These could be expanded both in number and in membership to reflect an enlarged House. This would serve to reduce the workload of any given committee, especially if there was a limit placed on how many bills an individual member could submit in a given session of Congress. According to Wikipedia, 24 of 99 state legislature chambers, including both of Colorado’s, have such limits.

Conducting congressional business online would also allow for the creation of new ways of deliberation. Moderated online conferences could take the place of floor debate. Twitter- or Facebook-type feeds could provide a new format for hearings.

For those occasions like the State of the Union where the Congress had to be brought together in the flesh, there’s an obvious option that wouldn’t involve building a new Capitol.

Meet outdoors on the lawn on the west side of the current Capitol. Members would stand. February weather in Washington can seriously suck, which would encourage the POTUS to be brief and to the point. And Nancy Polosi could burn her copy of the president’s speech page by page in a golden brazier to keep her hands warm, which would be a far more dramatic gesture than merely tearing it up after the session.    

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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