Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Senators must be allowed to vote remotely during a crisis like this one

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill in 2018. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Rob Portman, a Republican, represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, represents Illinois.

In the midst of the novel coronavirus, it is imperative that our federal institutions find ways to continue to perform their constitutional duties. Like so many others, the Senate has been affected by this virus, with one of our colleagues testing positive, others in self-quarantine due to possible exposure and many of our offices closed to practice social distancing. Now, when we have a pandemic affecting every corner of society and we are asking people to stay in their homes, we must take steps to make certain we have the ability to convene the Senate and get our work done even if we can’t safely gather in the Capitol.

The Senate’s work has not stopped. We are still responding to our constituents, performing casework duties to solve constituent problems and working on legislation to address this crisis. Over the course of the past few weeks, the Senate has been able to pass key pieces of legislation designed to alleviate some of the worst effects from the coronavirus pandemic.

More coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

In an overwhelmingly bipartisan manner, we passed legislation providing $8.3 billion in federal aid to go toward slowing the spread of the virus and helping affected individuals get the treatment they need. We also passed bipartisan legislation that will extend sick leave to hard-working Americans, expand unemployment benefits for folks who have lost their job during this economic slowdown and provide free coronavirus testing.

Now, even as we debate a third major legislative package to address this crisis, we are working under the possibility that the Senate may have to abruptly close to prevent the spread of the virus.

This is not a novel challenge — we have debated the continuity of government during times of crisis for more than two centuries. When the British burned the Capitol to the ground in 1814, it was President James Madison who had the idea of moving Congress to a hotel so it could continue its work. It took another five years for Congress to return to a rebuilt Capitol building. During the Cold War, an underground bunker was created at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for Congress should Washington be attacked. And in the wake of 9/11, the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution formed a commission on the continuity of government in the event of another major terrorist attack hitting Washington.

We are at a similar point today, only this time, it is not the Senate’s meeting space that is at risk — it is the senators themselves. That is why we introduced a bipartisan resolution that would amend Senate rules to allow senators to vote remotely during times of extraordinary national crisis like we see today. Specifically, during these kinds of national crises, be it a pandemic or another situation where it is impossible for senators to vote in person, the resolution gives the majority and minority leaders — in this case, Sens. Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Schumer — joint authority to allow secure remote voting. Remote voting would then be allowed for up to 30 days, and the Senate would have to vote to renew remote voting after every 30-day period afterward. This limitation will ensure that voting remotely cannot become the norm without a consensus around the continuity of an emergency.

Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias says states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election. These changes are overdue. (Video: The Washington Post)

We hope that this rule change is never needed, but we must be prepared. We know there is resistance to changing a Senate tradition, but we believe our constitutional obligation to govern and maintain a balance of power between the branches is more important than the tradition of in-person voting.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

This is an important issue and worthy of robust discussion among the members of the Senate and our constituents. Our hope is that this proposal will get us talking about how to best make certain the government keeps working during a national crisis, and we will work to push for this important resolution so that the Senate can continue to function, no matter the emergency.

Read more:

Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann: Members of Congress are facing a potential crisis of government. They were warned.

Congress reviewed its doomsday plans after 9/11. It never envisioned a threat like the coronavirus.

Daniel Hemel: Congress can’t meet remotely. The coronavirus might mean it has to.

Danielle Allen: America needs to be on a war footing

The Post’s View: The Trump administration is urging people to work from home. What about the federal government?

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.