The attacks of 9/11 gave Congress what should have been a wake-up call about the necessity of enabling the nation’s legislative body to meet remotely when needed. Almost 20 years later, we’re seeing the fallout from their failure to heed that warning. In an era when video-conferencing and other forms of technological remote interaction are common in business and Americans’ personal lives, elected federal representatives still must gather together in one room to do their jobs.
That restriction doesn’t work in the coronavirus era and probably led to infections among several members of Congress, which helped delay a crucial stimulus package. Like everyone else, Congress must find ways to adapt and continue doing the public’s business under these new conditions.
Recall the scene on Sept. 11, 2001, as members of Congress were frantically evacuating the Capitol — some of them urgently asking themselves what would happen to American government should a plane strike before they all got out.
Of course, a terrorist attack is just one of an almost endless number of scenarios in which requiring the constant physical presence of the entire government in one building could prove disastrous. The current pandemic is another, as we saw during the stimulus negotiations. Because of one petulant House member — Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who refused unanimous consent and forced a vote — the entire body was forced to choose between guarding their personal health and rescuing the economy. Ultimately, enough had to return to the Capitol to form a quorum and get the work done.
The solution going forward (in addition to what should be political purgatory for Massie) needs to be a revamping of congressional requirements for passage of legislation so members can do it remotely when a national emergency has been declared. As millions of Americans who telecommute have known for years, there is absolutely no technological barrier to that possibility today.
The barriers are procedural, political and, possibly, constitutional. The Constitution references “meeting,” “assembling” and “attendance.” But those words have more diverse meanings today than they did two centuries ago. Security of a remote-voting system would have to be ironclad. It should be used only during emergencies (like this pandemic), as opposed to making it the normal way of conducting congressional business. And members of the public must be allowed access as if they were sitting in the House or Senate gallery.
A bipartisan resolution introduced in the Senate last month calls for creation of such a system. Unfortunately, opposition to it is bipartisan as well. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both have resisted the idea, along with other traditionalists in both chambers. As they continue to balance the twin imperatives of protecting their health and protecting the country, it’s time to weigh preserving tradition against adapting to meet an urgent necessity.