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Remote voting would further undermine civility

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The legacy of coronavirus cannot be the creation of a virtual Congress.

By definition, Congress is the convening of voter-elected people to consider important issues. You cannot do this remotely with 435 people on a conference call. One of the victories of democratic government is the ability to bring together representatives from a highly diverse country to debate contentious issues in a structured atmosphere of respect to develop a workable consensus. The belief, and indeed the historical experience of our Congress, is that once placed in relationship with peers, ideologically distinct representatives can come up with a compromise that satisfies the essential needs of the people they represent.

Any long-term viewer of Congress would agree that one of the primary reasons civility and cordiality have diminished is because members have less time to build relationships. The greatest danger of remote voting is that it might work too well. Members should not try to patch together a virtual Congress for three months if it means a long-term change in the ability of Congress to fulfill its fundamental purpose of gathering the peoples’ representatives together.

There are practical reasons why creating a virtual Congress is a bad idea. C-Span viewers understand that even today, most members barely pay attention to proceedings on the floor, but their staff does. How much less would lawmakers pay attention to a virtual Congress when they could be meeting with constituents and tending to politically-beneficial things in their district? It is axiomatic that members are highly motivated by the desire to be reelected so their district schedules tend to focus getting them in front of the highest number of constituents.

One of the greatest problems with congresses since the turn of the century has been the lack of collaborative legislating between bipartisan members with common constituent interests. This has had destructive consequences of government by party leaders wielding absolute power over House floor procedures. The creation of a virtual Congress, if only because of how unwieldy a videoconference with 435 Type-A personalities could be, would have to be highly structured and tightly controlled by party leaders who have predetermined objectives. The ability to create bipartisan compromise and generate provocative amendments would be almost impossible.

When considering emergencies, we should start from the premise that Congress should not pass highly contentious and partisan legislation at the peak of a crisis.

This means party leaders need to develop consensus. Committee chairs and ranking members should develop consensus within committees to advance emergency legislation. There is a precedent for proxy voting in committees where chairs and ranking members cast votes on behalf of their partisan colleagues. This could be revived during national emergencies. It might work better today than it did in the past since chairs are elected by their party conferences, instead of a seniority system.

Unanimous consent can be used by leaders of both parties for passing legislation that demands quick action. This would require the Speaker and the opposition leader to have a definite sense of their party caucuses. Peer- and political-pressure should be used to control headline-grabbing dissenters, like Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), to prevent the achievement of an overwhelming bipartisan consensus on critical legislation. Leaders could create a lower threshold for a quorum during emergencies, which could serve as a block against any one member’s grandstanding.

In the Committee of the Whole, where the House performs much of its work, a quorum is 100 lawmakers. Reducing that to 50 during national emergencies would let the House conduct its business while still protecting minority rights and preventing one person from derailing progress.

Congress could create a Virtual Extension of Remarks in the Congressional Record so members can explain how they would have voted.

Proponents of virtual voting point to Massie’s recent behavior, which forced the entire Congress to travel to Washington, D.C., at the peak of the infectious period for the coronavirus, to pass a $2.2 trillion rescue package. It is a tribute to the members who showed up to prevent a single member from derailing the time-sensitive and vitally needed emergency aid. It is the height of irony that Massie, a self-proclaimed libertarian, called for giving the Speaker the power to call a virtual vote, which would cede the voices of members to a single, powerful person.

Just as exceptions make for bad law, basing the future of congressional procedure on the whims and fancies of one quixotic politician would be a terrible idea. Congress can deal with emergency circumstances consistent with its norms and traditions without further exacerbating the polarization that has so severely damaged its ability to conduct its Article I Constitutional responsibilities. The need to suspend hyper-partisanship during times of national crisis is one of the primary purposes of a Congress – bringing diverse people together to unite behind a common goal.

Mark Strand is president of The Congressional Institute, a non-profit corporation that seeks to help members of Congress improve service to their constituents and help their constituents better understand the operations of Congress.

Tags Thomas Massie

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