Want to clean up Congress? Make it more responsive? Reduce the influence of special interests?
Two very simple measures would do it, as well as ending at least some of the most appalling government waste, cut spending, raise public trust in government and increase approval ratings of Congress.
And any credible candidates running for Congress could do wonders to advance their candidacy by embracing these two simple ideas. The candidate’s party would make no difference, nor would it matter whether the candidate was running for the House or the Senate, an incumbent or a challenger.
All would benefit in the same way and to the same degree. At a time when voter distrust of elected representatives may be at justifiably record levels, with voters increasingly feeling Congress is out of touch, representing the interests of government itself and of those able to hire professional lobbyists instead of the interests of average voters, there are two simple moves which could restore faith in the system, and bring true change.
Though both are somewhat high tech, they are entirely feasible, and easy to understand, both in their technology, and in the way they would likely fundamentally transform Congress.
Live Streaming Video – Body-cam TV
Two political buzzwords of the last few years are “transparency” and “accountability,” but little has been done to actually produce either, even though any member of Congress, or candidate for Congress (or any office), could easily become truly transparency simply by wearing a small camera and microphone at all times. And only with transparency will there ever be any accountability – so long as voters do not know who did what or why, it is hard for them to hold anyone accountable.
C-SPAN may broadcast action on the floor of the House or the Senate, or certain committee hearings, but that is seldom where members of either chamber of Congress actually decide how to vote, or hear or see what influences that decision. Nor can C-SPAN allow voters to tell whether a member of Congress has ever read a piece of legislation before voting on it, or even reviewed any summary of a bill.
But if a member of Congress wore a small camera and microphone at all times, a body-cam, streaming live video of his or her activities, voters could tell. Voters could see when or even if a bill was read, and voters could tell if the member of Congress had any real idea what was being voted on before voting; voters could also see what interest groups or individuals made appeals to influence the vote on a proposal.
This form of transparency, creating strong pressure for members of Congress to actually read legislation before voting on it would do a great deal to curb the expansion of government, because Congress would almost certainly pass less legislation if members tried to read and know what they were voting on. Allowing voters to see the efforts to influence a member of Congress would also create true transparency regarding lobbyists and special interests.
In other words, the actions of members of Congress could become truly transparent…. which may be why many members of Congress will likely strongly resist the idea.
The candidate or member of Congress would effectively become his or her own reality TV program, transmitting live over the internet, only it would be REAL reality TV, not the semi-scripted, highly edited, half-hour or hour long broadcasts popularized in recent years. (Think of the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show, with a candidate or member of Congress as Truman, only at all times entirely aware of the “show.” There are now several applications available which would allow this.) For times when the candidate or office holder would take part in political strategy sessions, or receive a legitimately confidential briefing, there might be some explained delay of some, or even all, of a transmission until any time-sensitive reason for confidentiality had passed, but such needs would presumably be relatively few and far between.
This would not only end many concerns voters have of candidates or members of Congress essentially for sale to the highest bidder, or secretly currying favor with special interests, or voting on lengthy and complex measures without reading them (or even reading legislative summaries), it would generally mean an end those things actually happening – because the public would effectively be able to look over the shoulder of a candidate or member of Congress at all times.
Louis Brandies famously wrote in 1913 that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And he was right.
If the actions and conduct of members of Congress were exposed to continual sunlight, not only would people be less likely to believe the system is corrupt, but it would in fact be less corrupt.
Voters would be less likely to believe that Congressional votes are effectively bought and sold to various interest groups, or traded and dealt between members of Congress, not for the benefit of the home districts, but to help vague, nefarious “special interests” who persuade members of Congress to support, advance and vote for measures harmful to the nation as a whole. And voters would be less likely to believe it because the true transparency of members of Congress being subject to continual public scrutiny would disinfect the system just surely as sunlight.
(Some might argue the system is not corrupt, or that making candidates or office-holders the subject of streaming live video over the internet would not really address any problems that do exist. But whether there is any reality to the impression is not the point. Even though public opinion is not reality, in elective politics, public opinion often must be dealt with as if it were reality.)
Though personal life needs for privacy and shutting down the camera and microphone would exist, serious efforts to minimize such periods would be advisable, even to the point of changing sleeping habits (such as wearing nightclothes to bed), and those strapping on a body-cam would be well advised to minimize blackouts, since such periods would be inherently suspect. (Because the camera would be from the subject’s point of view as opposed to showing the world a view of the subject, the need for actual personal privacy blackouts would likely be far less than might initially be thought. In the early 1970′s a short-lived TV series called “Search” was built around this “body-cam” premise. The idea is not new, though the fact that technology would now allow it is.)
Any candidate adopting this approach would both instantly create a “buzz” for a campaign (guaranteeing considerable news coverage), and create an emotional investment for viewers, increasing the likelihood they would turn out and vote on election day for the candidate they had been watching. It would allow for the creation of a digital library of speaking events or interviews, or even simply addressing issues directly to the camera. Those digital recordings would lend themself to being further fleshed out with various links to either transcripts of the recordings in the digital library, or to written expansion of positions, or links to what others have written. (With the continuing improvement of voice recognition software, the idea of posting nearly instant transcripts without the time or expense of using a transcription service is a real possibility.)
Just as news broadcasts now often report on a popular viral video in part because such stories help fill newscasts without the time or expense of sending crew into the field, the body-cam would likely increase news coverage of a candidate or office holder at various events, because local newsrooms could pick a 20 second clip of something said without a news crew ever setting foot outside the newsroom. And by using a very small tripod a candidate could set the camera and microphone up to be trained on him any time he was actually delivering a speech or addressing a group.
Because continual streaming would amount to total and true transparency, it would result in considerable trust in anyone using this approach. Even when voters disagreed with a position, or disagree with multiple positions someone using this approach, voters are far more likely to support candidates they trust than, but disagree with, than they are to support those they agree with completely, but do not trust.
(It is also important that candidates or office holders realize that the trust would result not because anyone did actually watch all the time, or even watched at all — it would result from voters knowing they could watch at any time if they wanted.)
At a time when voter sentiment may be more anti-incumbent than any time in memory, continual streaming of every meeting with every lobbyist, every constituent, and every staffer, and of all reviews of legislation coming up for a vote, would go far to innoculate such incumbents from what many see as the disease of incumbency.
Another benefit of the body-cam approach is that beyond the direct interactive feedback it would stimulate, website tracking could allow a candidate to very quickly tell what messages and ideas were playing well, and what ones needed further work or explanation, or which needed to be scrapped.
A great many incumbents in 2012, whether good or bad, face the prospect of being swept up with true “bums” voters will “throw out.” The body-cam approach would play on the underlying doubts the public holds toward all politicians, and erase those doubts for those using the approach, while underscoring those doubts against opponents who would not.
This would in part be accomplished by promising to continue using a body-cam after taking office, and also promising to try to get Congress to allow true district-based representation, to assure the members of Congress actually represented their Districts as the founders originally envisioned.
(It should be noted that the suggestion here is not that anyone be required to offer streaming live video of every minute of their lives when campaigning, or even when in office, or even that they be required to do so during all but the truly personal and appropriately private moments of their lives, or that anyone be required to do this at all. The point is merely that it can be done fairly easily, and that a candidate or office-holder adopting the approach would have a tremendous credibility advantage over any opponent because it would create real transparency, allowing real accountability, not just lip-service to popular ideas.)
District Based Representation fn1
The House of Representatives was intended to represent voters by district, with Representatives coming from those represented, and for the first several terms of Congress, Representatives spent far more time at home, in their Districts, than they did in the nation’s capital. Often they spent much of the year actually working the jobs they held before going to Congress.
But as legislative sessions have lengthened, and Congress has seen fit to legislate everything under the sun, Representatives have come to spend ever more time in Washington, DC, where they are isolated from daily contact with those actually living in their districts. They are instead are in daily contact with other lawmakers, federal employees and Washington-based lobbyists. The interests of the former, those in the home districts, are prone to differ widely from the interests of the latter, those in Washington.
It can be very difficult to accurately represent the interests of those who are not seen and directly heard on a daily basis, particularly when those interests are at odds with the interests of those who are seen and heard every day.
It need not be this way. Teleconferencing is no longer the stuff of futuristic movies. Teleconferencing is here and it is now. Many people use it on a daily basis. Applications such as iMeet are advertised in heavy rotation on TV, with viewers “seeing” Brutus, Cassius and Trebonius plot the murder of Caesar as they are depicted meeting in a teleconference, or “seeing” Franklin, Jefferson, et al meeting in a teleconference to discuss the writing of the Declaration of independence.
The public understands this, and to many it would seem quite natural for members of Congress to actually live in their home districts instead of Washington, conducting legislative hearings and nearly all other business by teleconference, including voting electronically. (All recorded votes are already electronic, and nothing would prevent converting voice votes to quick electronic votes, which would further increase transparency for Congress, creating records for all votes).
While there would certainly be some expense for the needed software, the hardware for any representative could quite literally be any decent laptop computer, costing less than a single round trip flight between the home District and Washington for most members of Congress.
It should actually save money almost immediately, not just in the very obvious reduction of travel expenses, but also by reducing the susceptibility of Congress to Washington lobbyists and interests groups urging ever more federal spending… and the susceptibility of Congress to the siren song of the federal government itself urging ever more expansive government.
Members of Congress would also be able to dramatically reduce travel time between home Districts and Washington, giving them more productive time to do their jobs or to spend time with family.
Members of Congress uncomfortable with teleconferencing and remote electronic voting (as opposed to the electronic voting from the floor of the House) could certainly remain in Washington, DC, instead of working from their home districts, but doing so would likely create problems with voters. As soon as teleconferencing was allowed as an option, the pressure to use it would likely become considerable.
This would bring a fundamental transformation of the relationship between members of the House and those they represent. (Because district-based representation would also likely make it more difficult for professional lobbyists to maintain their current level of access to members of Congress, it should also seriously reduce the degree to which Congress is seen as a route for business to get preferential treatment from the federal government, and hopefully would in fact result in less preferential treatment, particularly from members also using the body-cam proposal.)
Though both proposals are completely independent of the other, they are extremely complementary, and in the minds of most voters would likely be thought of together. Both would also play well with the anti-incumbent mood in general.
fn1 I made this same suggestion in 1994 to a challenge candidate who won election, but who did not use the idea, and even then the idea did not originate with me – it was one I had seen in an op-ed piece in USA Today at the time. I refer to it as “district based representation,” because it would allow members of Congress to do the vast bulk of their work while in the districts from which they were elected, and not in Washington, D.C. With a minor rule change, voting, legislative or investigative hearings, and virtually any other official functions performed by Congress could be done from offices in their home districts instead of in the Capitol Building in the District of Columbia.