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Congress in a Time of Crisis: Remote Voting

Yesterday, I suggested that Congress has a lot of flexibility under its current rules that would allow it to keep the doors of the Capitol open and still hear from its members who are unable to come to Washington.

Members are understandably concerned about how Congress will operate if more members are sick or quarantined and if travel restrictions limit the ability of members to get to Washington.   Acting in good faith, members have called for everything from simple, limited remote voting to creating a virtual Congress that could operate with all members in their districts.

One vision of remote voting is where members stay permanently in their districts and perform all of their duties online.  This virtual Congress option is logistically unrealistic, and the difficulty is not primarily technological.  Would members be able to speak “on the floor” virtually?  Would virtual amendments be allowed with virtual votes on those amendments?  Would motions be allowed to be made virtually?

Each of these activities would be complicated to implement and likely take longer than the current procedures.  More importantly, the idea of a virtual Congress ignores the fact there are many behind the scenes personal dealings that affect floor action such as bargaining over whether amendments are offered or withdrawn, and the wide variety of deals made and future promises for action.

A virtual Congress is simply not a viable option.  This does not mean that, over time, we could not develop significantly improved channels for remote member communication, staff coordination, and review of classified materials.  But we should recognize that a more realistic aim to think about an entire spectrum for members to express their preferences if they are not able to come to Washington.

On a most basic level, surveying member preferences takes place with the usual behind the scenes conversations between leaders and members and amongst members themselves.  Other more formalized, but still behind the scenes processes such as the Senate hotline system or general Whip operations could also survey members preferences.  As for public options, we could publish members’ statements of how they would have voted in the Congressional Record, for those votes that are missed or those that were taken by roll call or by unanimous consent. 

One could even imagine more elaborate versions such as the reading of the list of members’ statements of how they would have voted directly in advance of votes.  Finally, if members demanded it, one could imagine implementing remote voting for final passage on a few bills, but it would likely be limited to a very few bills and likely not on votes that would be close and controversial.

Let’s start with the premise that members of Congress should be in Washington and their travel and participation is consistent with their safety and health recommendations.  And for those members who are in Washington, we will need to make some changes to floor voting procedures to increase hygiene and to limit the number of people gathered together.

And Congress should develop a plan for members who are away, a plan that will need significant resources, improved communications, and dedication to the idea that members need to express their preferences, participate in the legislative debate, and express how they would vote.  That plan might utilize and improve many of the existing mechanisms that Congress uses to survey its members’ preferences.  And yes, it might even involve some limited direct remote floor votes.

But let’s not think that the Congress can simply be recreated virtually.

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