How virtual Congress would fully transform the work of lawmakers

We live in an age where pandemics are rare. Without even realizing it, an assumption of continued health has allowed the government to grow and become more focused on Washington over the years. But the coronavirus has now forced lawmakers to stay home in their districts and grapple with how to do the work they were literally sent to Washington to do.

For over 150 years, Congress met in the winter and spring and vacated the capital when the weather in Washington became hot and humid. With the addition of air conditioning in the middle of the 20th century, lawmakers started to spend more time in session. At the same time, the astounding boom in modern medicine made any threat of plagues, which in earlier decades would empty the capital of lawmakers, almost not exist.

More time in session mirrored growth in what the government oversees. The first session of Congress maintained a watch over roads, tariffs, and appropriations. But today lawmakers can attend committee hearings on funding for fleets in the Pacific Ocean and financial rules in the morning, vote on housing policies and federal agency bandwidth in the afternoon, then do media interviews on new legislation under consideration in the evening. They will also often have to attend fundraisers at night.

No single lawmaker can be an expert on all issues. Thousands of staffers have moved to Washington to handle the various portfolios. Meanwhile, a bevy of staffers are busy back home working on local issues and assisting constituents in navigating the federal labyrinth with casework. For all the jokes made about Congress, it is a full time job that requires Congress to be a human institution where its members and staffers interact with each other. The word Congress is literally defined as coming together.

Congress is now contemplating doing this task from afar. Some members have suggested holding virtual hearings. Others have proposed some way to vote on legislation from off site. Leaders in both chambers, and thus in both parties, have resisted those calls. But if the current coronavirus crisis persists, or if we face recurring instances of similar national consequence, then Congress will have to make changes in order to do its work.

The balancing act of working in Washington and being present back home in their districts has been a challenge for lawmakers for years. It is not just the political expediency of sitting with constituents either. Members who have children face the difficult decision of whether to bring their families out to Washington or see them only briefly back at home. While $174,000 is a great salary, for lawmakers who are not wealthy or hail from high cost districts, the price of keeping two residences is not very easy, so there is always an incredible appetite to spend more time back at home.

What might Congress look like if members take more time away from the capital and engage in virtual legislating? Congress must pay attention to its own online security to ensure that communications are safe. Physical security for rank and file members would be a priority as members spend less time concentrated in one area. They would have to figure out how to conduct oversight from a distance. The average annual federal budget is about $4 trillion. That is a lot of dollars to ensure are spent correctly. The best case scenario is a $6 trillion budget or even more this year.

Those would be the immediate effects. But the most significant changes would occur more gradually. Within a few years, Congress would be less focused on the capital. There would be more time to address local issues. It would also lead to less expertise based in Washington and more in their home offices. Staffers who come from all around the country to be in the capital to take part in the government would be needed by members out in their districts rather than in House or Senate office buildings.

This would lead to sweeping changes in how the policy apparatus runs, with local lobbyists getting a leg up on firms in Washington. Think tanks, which are all over the capital, would have to alter how they do business with members, while spring industry flyins would have less importance. The coronavirus is bound to change how we reflect and act in our daily lives. But for Congress, this crisis could lead to a total makeover.

Aaron Jones is director of congressional relations at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a former staffer on Capitol Hill.

Tags Budget Congress Coronavirus Democracy Government Policy Washington

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