The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I’m chairman of the House Rules Committee. We need to change the way Congress operates.

A lone bicyclist rides under the circle of flags surrounding the Washington Monument on April 8, with the U.S. Capitol prominent in the background. John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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James P. McGovern, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House.

Covid-19 has exposed just how unprepared Congress is to continue its business during an unforeseen crisis. As cases continue to rise in and around Washington, it was announced on Tuesday that the House would no longer be in session next week due to public health concerns. Today, we face a pandemic, but we don’t know what tomorrow may bring. We must be prepared. It is time for this institution to finally embrace technology so it can safely continue legislating during an unexpected emergency.

As chairman of the House Rules Committee, I take changing the way this institution operates seriously. The way we do things matters. The House lives and breathes based on precedent and personal interaction, and decisions we make today will influence the choices made in this chamber 100 years from now.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

We cannot let the way things have been done in the past, though, blind us to the way things should be done in the future. The status quo has become unacceptable and dangerous — not just to members of Congress, but more importantly, to everyone we come in contact with.

Members frequently travel from their home states — some of which are coronavirus hot spots — to convene together in the close quarters of the Capitol complex. Then, they travel back home at the end of the week and repeat the process month after month. This routine could expose not only our colleagues, but also our staffs and the general public. We don’t know how many of these individuals may have compromised immune systems, preexisting conditions, or otherwise face a heightened risk from illness. In addition, due to a lack of testing, we don’t know how many people could also have the coronavirus but be asymptomatic.

It is a recipe for disaster during a pandemic when a virus spreads easily.

The Office of the Attending Physician and the House Sergeant at Arms have developed guidelines to minimize risk as much as possible. Some members, unfortunately, defiantly disregarded them when Congress recently met. Ignoring safety protocols isn’t courageous, it’s dangerous.

But these recommendations alone, even when followed to the letter, are not enough. We must also embrace technological advancements to further protect public health and keep Congress working. This will help us not only confront this pandemic, but also meet other important obligations such as keeping the government funded, crafting an infrastructure bill and combating hunger.

These temporary changes could include remote voting on the House floor or virtual proceedings across congressional committees.

It’s no secret that members of Congress have varying degrees of comfort with different technologies. We can, however, start with lower-tech options such as remote voting by proxy and evolve our approach to use more sophisticated options as we ease into this crisis.

I’m not suggesting in any way changing the way we operate on a daily, routine basis — only during extraordinary emergencies such as the one we are facing now. What we are talking about should be the exception, not the norm.

I recently released a resolution that would make these changes a reality. It was the culmination of many conversations with experts, constitutional scholars and colleagues on both sides of the aisle following a recent report I released that explored these topics.

Ultimately, there was resistance from Republican leaders. The speaker, to her credit, chose to continue these conversations for a few more weeks. A bipartisan task force has been formed to examine these issues further, and I’m proud to be a part of this effort. I have always believed that whenever possible, any changes to House rules should be bipartisan. I still believe that today.

Inaction, however, is simply not an option. The need to adapt is urgent. Experts have made clear that even if the crush of coronavirus lessens in the immediate future, this pandemic could come back even stronger in the fall. I don’t want to look back and wish we had made changes now.

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Many congresses run by both parties have examined temporary virtual proceedings over the years, most recently following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But changes to allow remote work have never gotten across the finish line. It is time to change that.

Technology has changed considerably in the 231 years since the first Congress met. I am confident we can develop solutions that are not only constitutionally sound, but also safe, secure and transparent. Congress has a job to do, and we must legislate — whether in person on Capitol Hill, remotely from our districts, or both.

The American people count on their elected officials to act, especially during times of crisis. We cannot let any emergency stop us in our tracks.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Congress should allow its members to vote remotely

Rob Portman and Dick Durbin: Senators must be allowed to vote remotely during a crisis like this one

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?