How Congress can improve productivity by looking to the rest of the world

How Congress can improve productivity by looking to the rest of the world
© Bonnie Cash

The House is set to vote on Resolution 965. Introduced by House Rules Committee Democrats, HR-965 would provide authorization for remote committee proceedings and voting by proxy - meaning that members can delegate a colleague on the floor to vote on their behalf — during the pandemic.  

While an important first step in helping to resume operations, Congress needs to follow the lead of those many legislatures around the world who have changed their laws and rules and are using technology to continue to legislate, conduct oversight and even innovate. 

Though efforts to restart by adopting proxy voting are a step in the right direction, they do not go far enough to create what Georgetown University’s Lorelei Kelly calls the “modern and safe digital infrastructure for the world’s most powerful national legislature.” 

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Congress has all but shut down since March. While the Senate formally "re-opened” on May 4, the chamber is operating under restrictive new guidelines, with hearings largely closed to the public and lawmakers advised to bring only a skeleton crew to run their offices. Considering that the average age of a senator is 63 and the average age of a Member of the House is 58, this caution comes as no surprise.

Yet when we take into account that parliaments around the world from New Zealand to the Maldives are holding committee meetings, running plenary sessions, voting and even engaging the public in the lawmaking process online, we should be asking Congress to do more faster. 

Instead, bitter partisan wrangling — with Republicans accusing Democrats of taking advantage of social distancing to launch a power grab and Democrats accusing Republicans of failing to exercise oversight — is delaying the adoption of long available and easy to use technologies. More than a left-right issue, moving online is a top-down issue with leadership of both parties using the crisis to consolidate power.

Working online

The Parliament of the United Kingdom, for example, is one of dozens of legislatures turning to online video conferencing tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Web Meetings and Google Hangouts to do plenary or committee meetings. After 800 years, lawmakers in the House of Commons convened the first-ever “virtual Parliament” at the end of April. In this hybrid approach, some MPs were present in the legislative chamber while most joined remotely using Zoom. 

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Online voting

Rather than settling on voting by proxy, however, many legislatures have also tested and adopted technological solutions for voting. This approach allows for a fully-functional remote legislature that requires only a few staff members and senior leaders to be present in the legislative chamber. 

For instance, Chile’s Senate holds plenary sessions over Zoom and along with an independent application to show a clock and manage speaking time during deliberation. The president of the Senate recognizes each speaker for five minutes. When there are sixty seconds remaining, the clock on the screen flashes red. For voting, each member appears on the screen and states his vote. 

In Brazil, the National Congress has passed a new resolution which enables the 594 Members of both chambers to work remotely. All participation in the Senate is now virtual. Senators can vote remotely either by voice or using their Remote Deliberation System called SDR. Senators authenticate their vote with a secure pin and password. They also turn on their camera and show their picture. Additional authentication is done using a code sent via WhatApp or text. The National Congress is one of 101 legislatures across Brazil using remote deliberation!

Closer to home, in New Jersey’s 120-member legislature, legislators dial-in to a conference call where members can verbally call motions, debate and vote on legislation. The legislature designed the conference call to incorporate the mechanics and interactions of a real in-person debate. During the first remote session on March 25th, the state’s General Assembly used the remote system to pass five bills related to pandemic response.

Beyond continuity

While ensuring the continuity of legislative operations is crucial, there is also an urgent need for Congress to adopt more innovative, open, and inclusive methods of lawmaking to restore the ever-diminishing trust in Congress. This pandemic creates a chance to increase opportunities for public engagement to improve the quality of lawmaking.

This April in France, for example, 65 members of Parliament across all political parties sponsored an online public engagement called The Day After to invite the public to offer solutions to eleven challenges posed by the recovery from the pandemic.

Committees of the UK Parliament have for years used the web on occasion to ask an expert public to review and comment on the evidentiary basis for a policy as part of the oversight process. During such an Evidence Check, the Committee invites academics and stakeholders to review the basis of an agency’s policy. If implemented stateside, such a process could provide much-needed public oversight over massive investments like the $2 trillion CARES Act. 

To be sure, there are those who argue that too much technology could undermine tradition or further erode an already diminished culture of civility in Congress. The 800-year-old UK Parliament is able to do Prime Minister’s Question Time online and the thousand-year-old Icelandic parliament is fully remote. Moreover should worsening conditions during this Pandemic or a future crisis leave the House unable to muster a quorum of in-person members to serve as proxies, even HR 965 will leave the chamber vulnerable to the very disruptions that it seeks to address and hobble our system of checks and balances. 

The resolution calls for "further study" but parliaments all over the world have been running natural experiments for years, demonstrating that moving legislative operations online is possible and even preferable if only we would learn from them. We must accelerate the “further study” by taking a page from Brazil, France, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador and the UK. While they may have started preparing sooner, there is nothing to stop us from catching up and leaping ahead.

Beth Simone Noveck is a professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, where she directs The Governance Lab (The GovLab) and its CrowdLaw program on legislative innovation. She was the United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and led the Open Government Initiative during the Obama administration. Dane Gambrell is a research assistant at The GovLab. His research focuses on governance innovation, in particular public engagement in lawmaking.