Congress must continue to move online

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COVID-19 is disrupting most industries and completely decimating others.

It’s also reshaping politics. Elected officials have been forced to cancel the constituent meetings and town halls that typically fill their calendars while home — and special-interest groups have been forced to cancel their fly-ins and meet-and-greets in the nation’s capital.

Early in my career, I worked as a legislative aide to a member of Congress from Florida. At our in-district events, the typical attendee was over 65. The notion of gathering a large group of seniors together at any point in the near future seems fantastical — if not criminal.

Fortunately, Congress is well-prepared to interact with constituents virtually.

Since the early 2000s, legislators have been forced to adapt rapidly as letters and phone calls transitioned to emails and tweets. This effort went into overdrive during both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner’s tenures as Speaker, as they encouraged offices to embrace digital media and social networks.

Congress is also prepared to ensure democracy can continue during a pandemic. But thus far, lawmakers seem unwilling to do so. From virtual town halls to remote voting on must-pass legislation, the technology to help lawmakers do their jobs from home exists — but isn’t being embraced.

With a pandemic raging, lawmakers must embrace the digital tools needed to ensure democracy continues — and remains participatory, transparent and responsive.

This should begin with the recommendations from the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which were approved by House lawmakers in early March. The panel’s chief recommendations are aimed at improving internal operations and included guidance on everything from diversity hiring to social media.

Many of these recommendations can be implemented now. As one example, the resolution called for the creation of an online human resources portal for lawmakers and staff. Lawmakers don’t need to be in Washington for this to move forward.

Lawmakers should also rethink their rejection of remote voting.

When the House Committee on Rules examined a host of proposals to ease COVID-19 concerns, this possibility was dismissed. The committee wrote: “While remote voting deserves similarly thoughtful study, to create a secure, reliable, and user-friendly system while in the midst of a crisis is not realistic.”

For many years, lawmakers and their staffers have used secure virtual private network (VPN) keys to log access their work anywhere. Remote voting will require more complex secure technology, but the concept is essentially the same. The only thing unrealistic is insisting that hundreds of senior citizens gather on House and Senate floors to vote in person.

Lawmakers can also begin connecting more effectively with their communities, virtually.

For over a decade, Lawmakers have used ‘telephone town halls’ – operator or web assisted conference calls – that allow them to remotely interact with large groups of constituents. In recent years the technology has evolved to include video, social media, and even more participatory tools. Remote meeting options such as this, and others used by businesses and non-profits around the world like Zoom and WebEx should be the standard Congress looks to in ensuring that citizens feel represented and safe.

For those of us on the other side — special-interest groups, public- and government-affairs firms, and individual voters — now is an oddly opportune time to reach lawmakers.

Many commercial advertisers have paused advertising, and shelter-in-place orders coupled with record unemployment means that more Americans than ever are glued to their screens. This crisis has also instilled a new sense of urgency and civic responsibility. Voters are home and ready to take action. Online petitions, charity and advocacy campaigns led via email and social, and virtual town halls will see increased reach and effectiveness in the weeks and months ahead.

The physical interactions that have defined a successful politician: a firm handshake, a kiss for a baby, an embrace for those suffering, could be gone for good. But the responsibility to engage with and represent constituents will continue.

Congress has been aptly described as a collection of 535 fiefdoms, each with its own ruler. When advocating for their states and districts, this benefits members’ constituents. But when a pandemic hits — and a 231-year-old institution is expected to scale its digital infrastructure, quickly — this is not ideal.

The technology to enable Congress to work virtually exists. Embracing this technology now is urgent. An accelerated modernization of our government could very well represent one of the few lasting, positive outcomes of this crisis.

Nick Schaper is the CEO of Engage and former advisor to Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Tags Boehner John Boehner Nancy Pelosi

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