THE 1918 FLU didn’t shut down Congress. The House of Representatives passed bills at a snail’s pace with only some members in attendance, betting on no objections. Three lawmakers died. Now the past could repeat itself, unless legislators take advantage of what the present can offer: technology that could spare Congress the need to operate so slowly, at so high a risk, when so much is at stake.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) released a “Plan for the People’s House” this week that he believes will let the chamber, whose minority he leads, “fully perform its key functions without . . . sacrificing bedrock norms.” The strategy constitutes progress; it’s certainly a leap ahead of what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has done, which is to send lawmakers as old as 86 back to work en masse. But while the hybrid approach Mr. McCarthy’s plan advocates — having some members sit in committee in person while others participate from afar — is reasonable, it would have been more compelling in the analog era. Today, there’s another choice.
Mr. McCarthy’s proposal would start with reconvening the committees and subcommittees he calls the “engines of regular order” in the House, rotating them through larger rooms and giving precedence to coronavirus-related measures, among other priorities. Participating virtually would be a privilege reserved for those at elevated risk or otherwise unable to come to Washington. Markups and floor proceedings, not to mention the all-important act of voting itself, are left alone: Bills would be shunted to the end of weeks or even longer “work periods.”
Beyond this, the plan pushes for logistical and safety-boosting tweaks such as voting in multiple waves (as nearly 400 members did in late April) or installing plexiglass dividers along meeting-room daises. Those are thoughtful changes, and they’ll be essential to phasing Congress back in when phasing-in is in order. But the acute phase of the pandemic is far from over; Washington’s infection numbers tick steadily upward. Congress is like any other workplace: It ought to open only when public health experts deem doing so safe. If it opens before then, an outbreak could shut it down all over again — and kill people.
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This might be worth the risk if there weren’t a better way — but there is one. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) convened a virtual roundtable last week on the very appropriate topic of legislative continuity in times of crisis; it went well. The D.C.-based firm Markup has a product that facilitates the amendment of bills from afar. Lawmakers could demo it for a low-stakes measure and show the skeptics that it works. Several states are experimenting with voting remotely, proving it’s possible through methods as complicated as an encrypted vote-logging system and as simple as a mass video conference in which members raise their hands to signify “aye.”
There’s no excuse to act as if it were 1918 when it’s 2020. Congress shouldn’t settle for a diminished role amid this pandemic, and it also shouldn’t settle for remaining stuck in the past.
James P. McGovern: I’m chairman of the House Rules Committee. We need to change the way Congress operates.
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.
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