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