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The 15,000

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, February 10 2010

Credit: GRITtv

Yesterday's episode of Laura Flanders' daily GRITtv program was on the topic of whether or not the United States Senate has outlived its usefulness, and whether it should be done away with like past American traditions like powered wigs and shooting squads. Discussing the topic was the New Yorker's legendary political writer Rick Hertzberg, Harvard and Change Congress' Larry Lessig, and your humble writer who focused on the possible grassroots aspects of the topic. It was exciting to discuss the prospect of blowing up the Senate, figuratively speaking of course -- not because it's a good idea on its own merits, necessarily, but because it speaks to a bigger conversation about Americans approaching their institutions of government not as reverent, impotent observers of a stage play about nation governing that has gone on for more than a 200 years, but as tinkerers. Open-sourcers. People who see the world as it is and say, "hmm, well why not something else?"

And as a former congressional staffer, I have to admit that that sort of talk is thrilling, naughty even, and downright exhilarating. (Though the fact that my place of employ was the House might have something to do with the charge it gives me to think about overhauling that other chamber on the other side of the hill.)

If you'd like to watch video if that discussion, it's over here. But there was one exchange about how changing Congress could come about, in some small way, through, yes, congressional staffers that I'd like to highlight here.

Or conversation revolved around the idea that the filibuster should probably have its head chopped off. I commented that talk of institutional change at the structural level -- do away with the filibuster, rethink holds, moving to public funding for elections, reconsider whether blue-slipping makes sense in an age when any ol' senator can find out more about judicial nominees to the federal bench in about two minutes on Google than a senator might know about a possible judge just because he or she shares a home state -- doesn't seem to be accompanied by conversations about reforming the culture of the place, a culture that shapes the thousands of interactions that go on in Congress every day and pile up to become what we outside the bubble see as the product of that institution.

First, a caveat that this idea is very rough. I first started thinking about it over breakfast. It may well be a dumb one. But the point I brought up yesterday is that, according to a ten-year old note from C-SPAN, there are more than 15,000 political staffers spending their days on Capitol Hill, working in House or Senate personal offices, on committee staffs, for leadership committees, or otherwise. They are political science majors, history buffs, government geeks. Many are the sort who went into working in politics because they believe in the power of government to do significant things, and important things, and positive things. These 15,000, in many ways, run these institutions.

The prospect is that they are a ripe bunch. It is almost guarantee-able that the question "should we abolish the Senate?" hasn't been entertained in the minds of many of them. They are an unmobilized army, and no, of course, no every one of them is a reformer. But my speculation is that there are more reformers amongst them than some might think. They may not tweet, but they read Twitter. They may not blog -- often, it's against the rules, or at least a well-understood no-no -- but blogs they read. In short, reformers seem to be missing the opportunity to plant some seeds of subversion on the inside those august institution on Capitol Hill. Innovation, and redemption, will no doubt come from outside Congress, but it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense for those who want to reform Congress to ignore the possibility that that change can get an assist from within.