Remove Congress from Washington

We’ve seen so many photographs of Washington pols flouting their own rules on social distancing and so forth that new stories about this or that congressman caught in flagrante are barely worth reading. We already know the story: People in government live such cosseted, enchanted lives that they seem surprised we even bother to get outraged. Of course they don’t follow the rules they make for us—why should they? 

It’s easy to see why our senators and congressmen get such swelled heads: The salary is $174,000 per year (Nancy Pelosi, as speaker, gets $223,500, which she apparently spends entirely on hair styling). Meanwhile, real median income in the United States was $36,000 per year in 2019. So, to start with, our congressmen believe the work they do is worth five times the work the average American does. 

But salary is the least significant part of the story: U.S. Representatives get an average of $1.4 million per year in office expenses, which includes $945,000 per year for staff. To put this into perspective, the Encyclopedia of the United States Congress reports that, before the Civil War, congressmen had neither staff nor offices and “most members worked at their desks on the floor.” Imagine that. 

Having a huge staff makes the real difference in how our representatives live. They have “administrative assistants” (servants) to take care of all the details that we ordinary people have to tend to ourselves: We have to book our own travel tickets, make our own doctors’ appointments, get our own cars serviced. We have to spend time on hold with the credit card company, the insurance company, the phone company, the internet company. Real life involves being on hold a lot.  

Our representatives don’t do any of this: They have people to be on hold for them. Their insurance is arranged for. They don’t have to call the doctor to reschedule appointments. And you can be damned sure that none of the people who voted for a ban on plastic shopping bags (as exists in New York, Seattle, California, and other leftist utopias) ever have to buy their own groceries. Real life contains a lot of these little nuisances. In fact, these nuisances are precisely what makes life difficult for regular people: Buying our own groceries was already enough of a pain before we had to remember to take reusable bags to the store. But Mayor Bill de Blasio wouldn’t know anything about that. 

More than anything else, personal assistants separate politicians from their worst creation: bureaucracy. Congressmen don’t wait in line at the DMV. They don’t stand in line to mail their own packages. They don’t apply for licenses or permits. They don’t do their own taxes to save a little money. They don’t do paperwork. They don’t fill out forms. They are totally isolated from the red tape which they inflict on the rest of us. No wonder they think government works so well: They never have to experience it. (And neither do their kids, whom they keep well clear of public schools.) 

In a previous piece, I suggested some remedies, such as fixing congressional salaries to the median income and requiring politicians to use the public services they endorse—which should include riding the subway and sending their kids to the worst-performing public school in their constituency. 

But there is a more fundamental remedy available: In 1790, when Congress seated representatives from all 13 states for the first time, there were 65 congressmen representing, as reported by our first census, a population of 3.9 million. Which means each congressman represented about 60,000 constituents. But as the population grew, we realized that of course you can’t fit an arbitrarily large number of people in a single building, so the Apportionment Act of 1911 limited congress to its current 435 seats. Today, congressmen represent an average of three-quarters of a million constituents: It is representation on a totally different scale. 

But if there is one thing that politicians can claim they successfully helped us prove in 2020, it’s that all sorts of businesses can function perfectly well from home.  

Congress could do that. 

Now that we no longer need to be in the same room to discuss the issues (not that real debate has happened on the House floor in recent decades) it’s obvious that congressmen and senators could better represent their constituents if they were closer to them, living in their own states and dealing with local issues. The beltway high life must be pretty distracting, after all. So how about this: Congress can do remote. Congress can Zoom. No more fancy office buildings in D.C.. No taxpayer-funded second homes. No office staff. Representatives can live like the people they represent. 

The Capitol Building could be preserved as a reminder of a simpler, earlier time, when congressmen worked alone all day at their desks and Americans were welcome to walk in whenever they pleased. 

And let’s scrap the Apportionment Act, which is just a regular law, not in the Constitution, and instead have one representative for every 60,000 Americans, just as we had at our founding. Congressional districts would be small enough that constituents could actually get in touch with their congressmen. And congressmen themselves, of whom there would be about 5500, would be relatively unimportant, just as our founders intended. 

Making laws shouldn’t be a full-time job—the idea that we’d treat it as such would have struck the delegates to the first United States Congress as very peculiar. Texas, whose legislature meets every other year, has the right idea: Our representatives should be gainfully employed doing regular-people things most of the time. Above all, they should be required to live life on the same terms as “we the people.” That means booking your own appointments, waiting on hold, and standing in line. I can’t afford a personal assistant. And, when you’re spending my tax dollars, neither can you.

About Dan Gelernter

Dan Gelernter is a columnist for American Greatness living in Connecticut.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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