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Opinion The House is at last moving toward being able to govern in a crisis

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) on Capitol Hill on April 23. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

DOG BARKING isn’t usually part of the congressional soundtrack, but we’re living in unusual times. A crucial hearing in the Senate this week was punctuated with background noise, including woofs, after its chair, star witnesses and several senators called in from remote locations — proof that Congress is going to have to learn to live with the virus, like the rest of us. Thankfully, the House of Representatives is getting ready to do just that.

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.

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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.

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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.

Read more:

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

Karen Tumulty: Everyone is learning how to work remotely. Lawmakers should, too.

James P. McGovern: I’m chairman of the House Rules Committee. We need to change the way Congress operates.

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

The Post’s View: This crisis could last a long time. Congress needs to be able to govern from afar.

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