Should We Outsource Congress?

It would cut costs and boost productivity. Why not outsource the 112th United States Congress?

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Call center office, elevated view

MySpace pages. Everything in the SkyMall catalogue. Another season of American Idol. All of these represent things that are marginally more useful than the 112th United States Congress, which is on track to be the least productive congress in memory. Having produced six times less legislation than the infamous “do-nothing Congress” of 1947–48, they are now poised to take off on a month-long summer break — a positively European amount of vacation — without having tackled important bills related to farming or the looming “fiscal cliff.” Congressional dysfunction has been cited as the reason behind everything from the poor state of transportation infrastructure to the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

Which begs the question: what exactly are we paying for? The average congressman earns $174,000 a year, more than three-and-a-half times the U.S. median household income. For fiscal year 2013, it will cost an estimated $5.9 billion to operate Congress and the rest of the legislative branch. Salaries and benefits alone account for more than $2.5 billion of that sum. The latter is roughly the same amount we spend to staff NASA. Except NASA actually does stuff — like build rockets and launch them.

The solution? Outsourcing. Perhaps to a subcontractor with a blandly sinister name in Arlington or a nice call center in Bangalore or any place that will accomplish something beyond naming post offices — at a time when the postal service is slowly going broke.

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Jagdish Dalal is the founder of JDalal Associates, a small Connecticut-based firmthat specializes in management consulting in the area of outsourcing. He is also a managing director at the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals. A long-time U.S. citizen, he has worked on outsourcing for global behemoths such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Xerox. He says that “when companies outsource they are looking for two things: results and value.” With Congress delivering neither, Dalal agreed to review topline budget numbers for 2013 and provide TIME with a couple of outsourcing proposals.

The first: the American people could outsource legislative work to a private, U.S.-based contractor in the same way that some firms outsource their shipping needs to a company like UPS. Instead of paying salaries, maintaining buildings, constructing memorials and printing reports (the legislative branch loves to print, to the tune of $118 million in 2012), the American people could simply pay a pre-determined flat rate — no hourly billing allowed — to a private company.

To keep things simple, we could let the current legislature incorporate into a private entity, Congress, Inc., which we then hire for an agreed-upon list of services. The cost-savings would be significant (at least 20%, says Dalal), but the real payoff would come in terms of efficiency. “You create a manifest of everything you want to get done: health care, a farm bill, etc., and then you say to them, ‘You don’t get paid until the work gets done,’” explains Dalal. “There can be rewards for early completion and penalties for late performance. And if they don’t get it done, they get nothing. It would be a real disincentive for filibustering.” It would also be a real improvement over the current oath of office for members of Congress, which only requires them to defend the Constitution from ill-defined “enemies.”

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Proposal #2 is more drastic. It involves downsizing D.C. and sending the bulk of operations offshore. Policy and legislative research, speech writing and constituent services could all be relocated to India, the Philippines, Poland or Costa Rica. “These are all countries with a skilled, educated work force,” says Dalal. “They could do the work.” And there is precedent for this: both the insurance and legal industries have long sent research operations overseas. The measure would bring down salary and benefits costs down by upwards of 30%.

As part of this model, our senators and representatives will be allowed to keep their jobs in the U.S. — but under a new status: part-time independent contractor. Between federal holidays, weekends and “recess,” congress is in session for only a third of the year. For 2012, the House has 108 working days on the calendar; the Senate has yet to release a complete schedule. Since it’s clearly a waste of our money to have these people milling around Washington, it’s time to downsize. “If they’re only going to work 100 days year, then it should be work for hire,” says Dalal. “We certainly don’t need to pay benefits, and it means we can cut their pay down to a third. This would give them an opportunity to get a second job.” The biggest advantage: the average congressman would be obligated to live like the average American — no benefits, no job security. (Welcome to America, congress people!)

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The move would also allow us to get rid of a few major line items: namely, that pricey neoclassical physical plant. In 2013, it will cost taxpayers an estimated $260 million to maintain the Capitol, as well as the House and Senate office buildings. And that’s just the start of it: there is the Capitol power plant, the Capitol visitor center, the Capitol police buildings and, of course, the Capitol police themselves — the latter of which are costing us more than $300 million in salaries and other expenses. We certainly don’t need to be spending this kind of cash so that a bunch of part-timers can bloviate on C-SPAN and be lobbied by K-Street. “There is Skype technology,” says Dalal. “Teleconferencing is a very accepted way of working for many companies. Our representatives could work from their home office — literally, inside their home — and vote from there. Plus, it forces them to be near their constituents. My congressman Joe Lieberman is hardly ever here. This way, I will always know where he is.”

By outsourcing Congress we can increase efficiency and, says Dalal, get an across-the-board savings of 20-30% — that’s up to $1.8 billion. This would leave us with playing around money to throw at the debt, fund the National Endowment for the Arts or buy new toilet seats for the Pentagon. All worthier causes than Congress, who seem perfectly happy to fiddle as their constituencies burn.

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