Should Members of Congress Be Allowed to Telecommute?

U.S. Capitol Dome
The dome of the U.S. Capitol is pictured here in January 2011. Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images News

Is there such thing as a virtual Congress? Not right now.

Elected representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are required to debate, deliberate and vote on bills in person at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. There is no virtual Congress because members of Congress are not permitted to telecommute to work from their districts.

Pros of Allowing Congress to Work from Districts

Proponents of a virtual Congress say allowing lawmakers to telecommute to work from their districts would keep them in closer regular contact with hometown residents and farther away from the Washington lobbyists who try to influence them.

Allowing Congress to telecommute from their districts would also save taxpayers money. The American public picks up the tab for travel costs incurred by lawmakers who travel back and forth to Washington from their districts every week.

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Moving to a virtual Congress would save an estimated $5 million a year by eliminating each member’s roughly $100,000 annual travel expenses used to get back and forth from their districts to the Capitol.

Cons of a Virtual Congress

Congress is often criticized for not doing enough about the major issues of the day. One potential downside of creating a virtual Congress is that productivity - what little of it there is - could wane. That’s because much of work that does get done in Washington is a result of face-to-face meetings and negotiations.

Legislation Would Create Virtual Congress

There have been at least two attempts to allow Congress to telecommute from their districts, and neither have been successful.

Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico has been a leading proponent of allowing members of the House to telecommute to work from their home states. He has twice introduced legislation calling for a virtual Congress, but it has never passed.

"Thanks to modern technology, members of Congress can debate, vote, and carry out their constitutional duties without having to leave the accountability and personal contact of their congressional districts.

Keeping legislators closer to the people we represent would pull back Washington's curtain and allow constituents to see and feel, first-hand, their government at work," Pearce said in March 2013.

"Corporations and government agencies use remote work technology; it’s time that Congress does the same."

How a Virtual Congress Would Work

Pearce’s legislation would allow members of the House to “implement hearings, conduct debate, meet, and vote” by teleconference and video conference. The plan would also require lawmakers to submit to retina and thumb print scans to verify their identities before using the congressional system.

Members of Congress would still be required to report to Washington for consideration of really important bills, to attend the president’s State of the Union speech and meet with foreign heads of state.

What the Constitution Says

There are at least two parts of the Constitution that pertain to how and where members of Congress meet.

Article 1, Section 5, Clause 4 states that neither chamber can meet outside of the Capitol without consent of the other. In the case of Pearce’s legislation, that means the Senate would likely have to sign off on allowing the House to commute to work.

The clause reads:

"Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting."

Section 2 of the Constitution’s 20th Amendment requires Congress to adjourn as a body at least once a year, though it doesn’t state where. It is generally understood to be in Washington.

It reads:

"The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day."

Members of Congress are typically in Washington for session days less then a third of the year.