Congress should not, however, have to be in Washington to do all of this. Big corporations, small businesses and the rest of us are learning to come together virtually. There is no reason lawmakers should not as well.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told me that congressional leaders are having serious conversations about finding a temporary way for members to represent their constituents while scattered across the country amid the pandemic.
“None of us has ever experienced anything like this before,” Hoyer said. “It compels us to consider very, very carefully how the Congress can work if the Congress can’t congregate in a spot.”
That starts with figuring out a temporary means for lawmakers to vote remotely — an idea long resisted by leaders of both parties.
Hoyer said he is open to changing House rules so members can vote using FaceTime or some other virtual means, or perhaps installing secure voting machines in members’ homes or district offices.
The House Rules Committee released a memo last month exploring how it might change procedures to accommodate remote voting. House leaders have also sought practical advice from major technology firms, including Microsoft and Cisco.
Congress is in recess, meeting in pro forma sessions, and tentatively scheduled to return April 20. But as things stand, it’s doubtful that will happen. With social distancing recommendations expected to stay in place at least through this month, it is hard to imagine it will be deemed safe for hundreds of members to travel and then gather in the chambers.
In the meantime, leaders of both houses have been scrambling — and improvising. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) objected to passing last month’s historic $2 trillion recovery package on the “unanimous consent” of a near-empty chamber. That meant House leaders had to assemble a quorum to push it through on a voice vote.
The question now is whether they might have to do the same in response to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s urgent request for an additional $250 billion to replenish the $349 billion program for coronavirus aid to small businesses to meet surging demand.
The recklessness of Massie’s stunt notwithstanding, House and Senate leaders should not be relying on parliamentary sleights of hand to move massive pieces of emergency legislation without a roll call vote. Voters have the right to know where their representatives stand on decisions that will affect their lives for years to come.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remains staunchly opposed to remote voting in his chamber. The Senate has a smaller membership than the House and therefore faces less of a challenge in physically assembling a quorum.
But the idea does have some bipartisan support. Last month, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) argued in a Post op-ed for allowing remote voting for 30 days at a time during periods of national crisis. “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,” they wrote.
Others, such as political scientists Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, have been making that argument for decades, going back at least as far as the 9/11 attacks and the delivery of anthrax-laced letters to two senators in Washington a month later.
Then, Congress put in place contingencies against the possibility that the Capitol might be demolished or uninhabitable. Now, the threat that lawmakers face comes not from an outside enemy but from being exposed to each other. With the average age of a House member nearly 58 and that of a senator nearly 63, the chambers may be among the country’s most vulnerable workplaces.
Another difference, of course, is that 9/11 happened nearly six years before the debut of the iPhone. Technology is available now that can bring people together in ways that would have been unimaginable then.
Remote voting should never become an ordinary way of doing things in Congress. There is value in the relationships that can be developed only face-to-face, and there is potential for abuse if lawmakers are routinely allowed to phone in.
But at a time when everyone else in the United States has been forced to learn new ways of getting things done, their elected representatives should be leading the way, not resisting the imperatives of the moment. The shape of the country’s future depends on it.