Needed: A time-bound virtual Congress

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Congress should have the capacity to deliberate and to vote via virtual platforms like Zoom and Google Hang Out. The use of these platforms should be limited from the onset to some agreed upon point, say when there are less than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. Such capacity would be needed even if there were no pandemic, to enable the legislative branch to function in case of other calamities, such as terrorist attacks or Anthrax, a capacity the executive branch already has. The British have shown that a virtual parliament can function quite effectively.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, members of Congress has come under increasing pressure from not only their constituents but also from the representatives themselves to establish some system of remote communication. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of House members from both parties, issued an open letter to leaders calling for a range of options such as the installation of voting machines in lawmakers’ districts. First Branch Forecast found that 18 senators and 111 House members support remote voting. Some representatives favor even remote legislative debates.

Norman Ornstein points out that Congress needs to realize that acting as a check on Trump is possible only if Congress continues to exist. And this, he states, requires finding ways for Congress to operate in times of emergency, like the one the country is in now. “The alternative,” says Ornstein, “is to have Donald Trump making decisions without any checks and balances.”

A group created a trial run of a virtual congress using Zoom. There were some concerns that hackers could disturb the proceedings by posting vile messages. But the session was not interrupted. Still, critics wondered: “How were the participants playing staffers supposed to whisper guidance to the members of Congress they served? What was the best way to offer an amendment? Could the parliamentarian offer real-time feedback to the chair?”

Bipartisan compromise and provocative amendments spur intense debates that may be impossible to provide for online. Mark Stand, president of the Congressional Institute, argues that such platforms would have to be tightly controlled by party leaders. But many of these difficulties can be overcome by changes in the platform. For instance, unmuting the total membership at set points or introducing a capacity to stop the proceeding when a member has a point of order.

Sadly, the issue is caught up in partisan politics. Republicans favor meeting in person despite the heath threats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the Senate into session in Washington. At the same time, Democrats refused to convene in the House, and stayed in their districts, but without a virtual capacity to deliberate.     

There may also be constitutional precedence against remote voting because the Constitution requires “that a majority of each chambers’ members must be present to do business.” But I have confidence that the lawyers and judges will be able to redefine what present means in the 21st century.

Granted, a virtual Congress is a slippery slope. Once members of Congress get a taste for working from home and see the benefits of not having to fly to Washington (and keep two households), they may well seek to keep this setup well after to virus is contained. Hence, in the importance of a clear understanding that the virtual Congress will be sunset at a point specific upfront.

The Brits did it. On April 21, 50 Members of parliament were on the floor, but all the rest joined the debate virtually. There were some technical glitches with screen freezing and some MPs forgetting to mute their mics when there was background noise. But both members of the parliament and experts agree that the session worked effectively, as members were able to carry out the traditional grilling of those testifying. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle stated, “I can say almost everything has gone smoothly.” The remote sessions accomplished the bare minimum of what needs to be done but lacked the energy in the usual exchange between members such as there were no “hear hears” to be heard in the House that typically echo throughout the proceedings.

As of May 3, according to NPR, there were not enough rapid test kits available to test even the 100 senators, let alone the 435 members of the House. This state of affairs leaves Congress with three options: Assemble in person, risking each other’s lives and those of their staffs; do not assemble, and let the executive dominate even more; or use virtual platforms until it is safe to assemble, ensuring that they will be turned off once democracy can be practiced again the way the Founder Fathers envisioned it.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book, “Reclaiming Patriotism,” was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2019 and is available for download without charge.      

Tags #coronavirus #2019nCoV #contagion Congress coronavirus Donald Trump Google Mitch McConnell United States Congress United States House of Representatives United States Senate

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