Removing the “Capitol” from “Capitol Gridlock”

“A rolling stone gathers no moss.”

–Proverb

“Seven of the richest American counties in 2011 were in the Washington, D.C. region.  Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, all in Northern Virginia, have higher median incomes than every other county in the United States.  Whence comes this wealth?  Mostly from Washington’s one major industry:  the federal government.

–Ross Douthat, “Washington vs. America”; The New York Times (9/22/2012)

Want to do something about today’s ever more bitter partisan politics and Washington gridlock — not to mention the fiscal cliff gold capitollooming less than one week away, and today’s increasingly gilded Capitol and surrounding environs?

Here’s a brainstorm:  take “Washington” out of the equation.

Yup . . . switch it to someplace like Kansas City or Albuquerque, where the cost of living is cheaper and lobbyists don’t already control all the prime real estate (literally and figuratively).

Even better:  periodically rotate the site of the capitol, just like the Olympics, or the Democratic and Republican conventions (quadrennially); or annually like the Super Bowl or the World Series.

Just think of it as terms limits for capitols as well as politicians (“term limits on steroids??”).

Blast From the Past

I wrote the following Op-Ed piece — published by The Minneapolis Star Tribune and excerpted below — almost 20 years ago (Sept. 27, 1993 to be exact).

I submitted it with the title, “Why Mr. Smith Shouldn’t Go to Washington”; the paper’s editors ditched that in favor of “Congress, Come Home:  Faxes Can Do the Talking on Capitol Hill.”

No matter.

Substitute “Skype” and “the Internet” for “teleconferencing” and “faxes,” and the case for relocating the Capitol — or disbanding it altogether in a few years (into the cloud??) is even more compelling today.

Judge for yourself:

In an era of jet travel, teleconferencing, and faxes, why not bring Washington to the people?  Specifically, let members of Congress work out of their home districts, under their constituents’ watchful eye.  Such an approach would have several benefits and surprisingly few drawbacks.

First, it would make members of Congress less accessible to lobbyists and special interests.

Lobbying Congress now is like shooting fish in a barrel:  all you need is a Washington branch office staffed by a few employees, and a well-heeled political action committee (“PAC”).  Not surprisingly, more than 9,000 trade associations and businesses maintain an office in Washington.

Conversely, locally based members of Congress would be more accessible to constituents.  The most successful businesses are the ones that “get closest” to their customers.

Politicians’ “customers,” the voters, are scattered across the United States, not based in Washington.

In turn, members of Congress would be more accountable, and better attuned to local issues and concerns.

Second, a dispersed Congress would be less expensive.

Members of Congress needn’t maintain a home in the expensive Washington, D.C. area.  Consequently, both they and their large staffs could be paid less.

By the same token, politicians might get a different perspective on government spending if they lived “outside the beltway.”

According to “The Culture of Spending” by James Payne, 96% of the witnesses Congress now invites to testify before it speak for government programs; less 1% oppose them.

Third, keeping Congress at home would attract a different kind of politician.

Instead of public service, many politicians now seem to be attracted by — or at least stay for — the power and glitz.

The best way to keep politicians from being seduced by Washington is not to send them there in the first place.

Modern technology and the way Congress now functions make decentralization a surprisingly feasible alternative.

As any C-Span junkie can attest, Congress is no longer a deliberative body.

The typical Congressional speech is delivered before an empty chamber for the benefit of television, the Congressional Record, and the spectator gallery, in that order.

The real work of Congress is now done by a myriad of committees.

Modern communications such as teleconferencing and computer bulletin board systems are tailor-made for this kind of work.

While term limits will certainly help, they are still an indirect way to make politicians more accountable.  The more direct way to make politicians more accountable — at least at the federal level — is to bring them closer, philosophically as well as literally, to the people they represent.

–Ross Kaplan, “Congress, Come Home:  Faxes Can Do the Talking on Capitol Hill”; Minneapolis Star Tribune (9/27/1993).

Spreading the Wealth

So, wouldn’t it be expensive to keep relocating the Capitol, albeit only once per decade or so?

If that were the case, cities around the country (and world, in the case of the Olympics) wouldn’t vie to host such events.

Civic leaders know that the economic “kick” from playing such a role has a long-lasting, stimulative effect on the local and regional economy — starting with the construction activity needed to upgrade the infrastructure of the host city.

Hosting an Olympics or Super Bowl undeniably also confers a certain cachet.

If the idea took hold, the next challenge would be coming up with a name (“Temporary Capitol?” “U.S. Capitol – 2020’s?”).

P.S.:  people think — mistakenly — that “Air Force One” (or “Marine One”) is a specific plane or helicopter.

In fact, it’s whatever plane or helicopter the President happens to be in.

About the author

Ross Kaplan has 19+ years experience selling real estate all over the Twin Cities. He is also a 12-time consecutive "Super Real Estate Agent," as determined by Mpls. - St. Paul Magazine and Twin Cities Business Magazine. Prior to becoming a Realtor, Ross was an attorney (corporate law), CPA, and entrepreneur. He holds an economics degree from Stanford.

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