Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) long-promised resolution enabling remote operations may finally come to a vote on Friday. A bipartisan review of the matter has resulted in what looks likely to be a party-line split; Republicans rejected the most ambitious aspects of a proposal to allow lawmakers to hold hearings, fact-find, mark up, depose and, yes, vote — all from afar. But what Democrats have cooked up is a smart time-buying step along a longer path of modernization that should end with a legislature truly able to govern in a crisis.
The package the Rules Committee has presented begins with holding hearings remotely, which even the recalcitrant, Republican-controlled Senate has enabled. Without it, self-quarantined star witnesses, including Anthony S. Fauci, couldn’t have appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday. More interesting is the House’s determination to let bill markups happen remotely, too, or as hybrids between remote and in-person meetings — pending further regulations and certification from committees. Those rules should come quickly, and committees should ensure they’re ready to turn the option on. This is the way to give members not simply a vote on the floor but also a voice in the room where legislating happens.
The floor votes themselves are also a work in progress. The plan is to start with proxy voting wherein members at home give express written instructions to members at the Capitol to cast an aye or no for them. But House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has been helming his party’s efforts, says he’s hopeful the House will soon allow representatives to vote for themselves by coming face to face with the clerk via video conferencing. This would be authorized temporarily, at the discretion of the speaker after the sergeant-at-arms notified her of an emergency in consultation with the chamber’s attending physician. And, per minority suggestion, it would happen only after a House Administration Committee study finds a secure technology exists.
In other words, there’s space to get this right — but Congress should use that time efficiently and effectively to create remote versions of all its processes, instead of treating what are meant to be temporary measures as a permanent solution. And it should also take care to ensure the same level of access to the press and public as during regular order.
The House is finally beginning a cautious walk toward a legislature able to carry out its constitutional mandate and protect its members at the same time — a course that at least 12 states around the country are also taking. Republican holdouts in the House and in the slow-moving Senate have no excuse not to to join in the tiptoe.