Is a virtual Congress good enough for government work?
© Bonnie Cash

The debate in the House Rules Committee last Thursday, and subsequent floor debate on Friday brought into stark relief differences between the parties over how Congress should operate in the midst of a national pandemic.

The House Democrats’ plan to go virtual for committees and floor proceedings met fierce Republican insistence that Congress operate together in the Capitol when making important legislative decisions.

The Rules Committee spent more than six hours hearing from colleagues and considering over 30 amendments to a proposed new rule allowing the House to conduct floor votes through proxies designated by absent members, and to conduct virtual committee hearings and votes without proxies.

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Republican witnesses uniformly insisted that committee and floor votes be cast in person in the nation’s capital. Democrats maintained that the Constitution does not require a unified presence in the capital for either function, and that the current pandemic demands emergency measures.

The Constitution mandates only that, “A majority of each House shall constitute a quorum to do business.” It does not specify a collective presence in the same place, but “doing business” certainly means more than just voting. It includes the ability to debate and amend.

House majority Democrats recognized the coronavirus crisis shutdown was not a sustainable governing model. They initially put forward a draft proposal to allow the House and its committees to work remotely during the pandemic. When that proposal ran into a buzz saw of resistance from Republicans, a bipartisan taskforce was appointed to work out differences. 

Republican task force members insisted that House proceedings only be conducted with members present on the House floor to debate and pass bills. They would allow committees to hold hybrid hearings remotely, but not to amend and report legislation.

Ultimately, a bipartisan compromise was not achieved; however, lesser concessions were made. 

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Under the new process, for floor votes absent House members could submit their proxies to designated members present on the floor to vote through the House Clerk. Absentees would instruct their designated members to cast an “aye” or “nay” vote on specific amendments and measures on their behalf.  They could also indicate whether they wanted to be counted “present” in response to a quorum call. Committees would operate by video conference to conduct remote hearings and meetings, and to amend and report legislation.

The upshot was a divide between the parties over the regular order versus a new virtual order for conducting the people’s business.

When the resolution to change House rules reached the floor, the Democrats’ virtual Congress plan was adopted, largely along party lines, 217 to 189.

Public reaction to the new virtual reality, if any, has yet to be gauged. Yet, the concern expressed by many members is that they will lose the benefit of the personal interactions that are at the heart of a deliberative legislative process. Congress by definition means “a coming together.” Without actual convening for an exchange of ideas, arguments, and persuasion the original purpose of the body designed by the founders will surely suffer.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and the author of “Changing Cultures in Congress, From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.