Another Perspective

The Times That Try…

Congressmen like to travel? Here's a way to keep them home where they belong.

By 6.7.06

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The hits keep coming. The Center for Public Integrity has somehow stumbled onto the habits of the U.S. Congress, to discover that in the space of five and a half years lawmakers and staffers have accepted some $50 million worth of trips, often to foreign climes or exclusive resorts. In terms of time, they were gone on these expeditions for more than 81,000 days, or 222 years. Ah, would that it were so! But they return, obliged. And a solution is needed -- now.

When the Founders were writing the Constitution they were enamored of December First, declaring the Congress-to-be should meet at least once a year and on the first day of December. The meeting date was subsequently changed, but the "once a year" was maintained. It was necessary at the outset of nationhood for the lawmakers to make law that often. They were feeling their way. In the First Congress, of 1789, 94 public laws were passed. Twenty years later, the Congress passed 126 public laws. By the 40th Congress, it was 226. By 1920 the figure was more than one thousand. By 2003 the 108th Congress introduced 8,468 measures and passed 498 of them. All told, since the beginning, the U.S. Congress has accounted for 45,055 Public Acts passed! And this does not include the many thousands of resolutions and so-called private acts.

Question: Don't we have enough laws on the books with which to regulate our lives? Isn't a 700-plus page Tax Code enough reading for one evening?

Solution: biennial meetings of the U.S. Congress.

Seven states manage that way and there has long been a move to make the federal budget a biennial piece of legislation. True, we would have to alter the Constitution, and probably extend the term of representatives from two to four years, which would give them a year off from fund-raising and/or hell-raising in some foreign resort on some lobbyist's tab.

Think of it. A year off for the nation, during which time the elected representatives would spend time at home with the people who elected them, discovering what it was that is wanted by those strangers back home, and not what is available from the lobbyist coffers on "K" Street. Yes, mandatory time in the home district (state in the case of senators) to find out what those folks look like, and what they think.

This reform could easily be coupled to some already discussed: the requirement that all campaign funding originate in the home district or state. And that it have reasonable dollar limitations.

The biennial Congress has a benefit that cannot be calculated. It would free the nation from its current obsession with Washington-oriented affairs. It would allow the public a space in which to rediscover its true interest: the family, the neighborhood, the school. There would be a President, of course, but not a presence in the current ubiquitous sense. If he needs help he can holler as he can now and summon the Congress to immediate session.

Consider a nation so engaged in the affairs that matter that Washington, D.C. becomes a remote monument except for every other year when it must be paid attention, when the elected few arrive armed with the real needs of their constituents, prepared to see a session through without long "vacation" breaks in the midst of the business, looking forward themselves to getting back home to life as it was meant to be.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.