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Should Members of Congress And Witnesses Be Allowed To Skype Into Hearings?

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, July 3 2013

Eric Swalwell, a California House Democrat (center,) Wants To Skype Into Hearings. Photo: Flickr/Realtor Action Center

A new proposal to allow House members and witnesses to participate remotely via teleconference in committee hearings shows a lot of promise, says a former Democratic House staffer who's now at a Washington, D.C. think tank examining ways that the lawmaking process could become more participatory. But the proposal to enable members of Congress to spend more time in their districts would fall far from the Congressmen's stated end goal of diminishing the influence of lobbyists.

California Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Democrat, and his Republican colleague Steve Pearce of New Mexico caught a lot of people's attention earlier this week when they proposed a resolution to enable House members and witnesses to participate in hearings remotely, and to securely vote remotely on bills on the House suspension calendar, which are bills that are relatively non-controversial, and require two thirds of the House vote to become law.

In a statement on the proposal, Swalwell argued that the legislation would enable House members to spend more time with their constituents in their districts rather than in Washington D.C. being influenced by lobbyists.

“Companies and families across the country are using technology to communicate remotely and conduct business," he said in a press statement. "There is no reason that the legislative branch of the world's oldest constitutional democracy cannot do the same."

Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, applauded the Congressmen's initiative, but tempered the praise with some advice: Enact campaign finance reform first. Kelly worked for Reps. Elizabeth Furse, (D-Ore.) and then Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) between 1997 and 2006.

"I don't want to smash the hopes of the congressmen, but I think you have to ask when you do these technical fixes to Congress, to what end?" Kelly asked. "I mean that if you want Congress to serve the public interest, and to do its job, and serve the public interest and stop being dysfunctional, it would be far more effective to get money out of politics, do public financing or campaign finance reform because when members are here, they spend half their days raising money -- it's a huge problem."

The most promising aspect of the Congressmens' idea is to enable a wider range of witnesses to provide their expertise to hearings, Kelly argued.

"If you could open up the hearing process on policy, and get more people to participate remotely, that's a way you could bust open regulatory capture," she said.

"On the one hand, I want to support anything that decentralizes and distributes power, which is what we're seeing with technology, but there is no technical fix for the most fundamental, dysfunctional aspects of Congress," she said.

For example, many members of Congress don't have the levels of staffing they need to analyze the costs and benefits of public policy proposals, she says. The staffing levels of both chambers is at 80 percent of the levels they were in 1979. And members of Congress already spend a lot of their time in their districts, she noted. In 2012 members spent 107 of their days in Congress. This year, they're scheduled to spend 126 days in the Capitol. The issue is that when the members are in D.C. they spend half of their time fundraising, she said.

As for remote voting, security experts in the United States have long warned that the technology doesn't exist yet to allow for secure remote voting. And Kelly said that Congress already experimented with the idea of proxy voting in the Eighties. Members of Congress were once allowed to vote on behalf of their absent colleagues. But that system was abolished under the leadership of Newt Gingrich when he was House Speaker. House members currently register their votes on legislation on the House floor by sticking a card into an electronic reader, hence the requirement for their physical presence during House floor votes.

"I think there's great potential for technology in broadening the knowledge base, and including more people to defeat the cartel-like aspect of Congress, which seems to be dictating policy, but the fundamental problem is members having to raise so much money that they can't do their job as policymakers when they are in D.C."