Sidelined by Coronavirus, Congressional Leaders Face Pressure to Vote Remotely

WASHINGTON — With Congress sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic and unable to return to the Capitol, House and Senate leaders are under increasing pressure from a bipartisan array of current and former lawmakers to shift to remote legislating, including using a secure online system to conduct votes.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, have both expressed opposition to remote voting, insisting that lawmakers can fulfill their duties without making such tradition-shattering changes in the way Congress operates.

But their resistance is running up against mounting logistical and political challenges, and rank-and-file members — as well as some senior lawmakers who once resisted the idea and scholars who study the issue — say the current ad hoc method of legislating is both untenable and antithetical to the way Congress is supposed to work.

“I think sentiment in the entire Congress is changing about this,” Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said in an interview on Tuesday. “When we took our first vote and then came back to our districts, I think the plan was just to stick with the existing rules. But as the boxer Mike Tyson said, ‘No plan survives getting punched in the nose.’ We’ve all been punched in the nose by the coronavirus.”

Both Ms. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell have scrapped plans for their chambers to reconvene next week, announcing that they would push the date until May 4 at the earliest, amid a raging debate over when it is safe for the country to begin pulling back on the social distancing practices that have slowed the spread of the coronavirus. And lawmakers in both parties say the strategy House leaders employed to pass coronavirus relief legislation in recent weeks — scheduling consensus action without a recorded vote and hoping that nobody will object — is not sustainable.

Deprived of the ability to meet in person, the House last month passed a $2 trillion stimulus package by voice vote — an unusual maneuver that almost fell apart when one lawmaker, Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, objected and demanded a quorum. Some members drove or flew all night to get to the Capitol to ensure the bill could pass.

Now, lawmakers are debating yet another emergency infusion of cash into the battered economy, and it has become painfully clear that the bipartisan cooperation that smoothed the way for the last bill to pass has evaporated, with Democrats and Republicans at odds over what should be included in a next round of government assistance.

Rank-and-file members in both parties and both chambers say it is too dangerous for them to return, and they want to avoid a repeat of the Massie episode. Moreover, they do not want legislation hashed out in private by their leaders. They want a chance, they say, to do what Congress is meant to do: debate legislation, offer amendments and vote.

“It’s time for Congress to come into the 21st century in terms of this issue,” said Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, who is sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would allow Senate leaders to authorize remote voting for 30 days in an emergency. “Probably half my constituents are working remotely right now, in full or in part, and Congress hasn’t yet figured it out. I think we’re a little behind the times.”

Beyond voting, Mr. Portman and others want remote hearings and legislative debate.

Good-government advocates see the moves as an imperative. Without a way to meet remotely, the House and Senate have no way to conduct oversight or act as a check on President Trump, who was impeached on charges of abuse of power and this week declared he had “total” authority to supersede governors’ decisions about whether to reopen their states.

“The choice is remote Congress or no Congress,” said Daniel Schuman, the policy director of Demand Progress, a progressive organization that advocates government transparency and accountability. “And if you have no Congress, you have what our founders feared most, which is an executive branch with no legislative check.”

Ms. Pelosi has repeatedly dismissed the idea of remote voting, and did so again last week after a bipartisan group of House members called the Problem Solvers Caucus issued an open letter to leaders outlining a suite of options, including installing voting machines in lawmakers’ districts.

“We’re not there yet,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters, “and we’re not going to be there, no matter how many letters somebody sends in, with all the respect in the world for that.” Still, Ms. Pelosi left the door open a crack, saying that she hoped “the blessings of technology will give us more options sooner to review.”

Some lawmakers and aides have been briefed in recent days on a secure online voting tool that mimics the electronic card system used by the House, developed in response to the coronavirus crisis by a small technology start-up called Markup.Law.

“We think what they should do is to seriously start evaluating systems like ours, because this is going to go on for a while,” Joel Rothstein, the company’s chief executive officer, said in an interview.

In the House, any update in the means of voting would require a rules change, which itself would require an in-person vote. Mr. Schuman’s group, which is keeping track, says 111 House members and 18 senators are on the record supporting remote voting. Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, said in a recent interview that he was rethinking his earlier opposition to remote voting, which he had previously dismissed as setting “a bad precedent.”

Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and the chairman of the House Rules Committee, has been conducting discussions with members on how they might use technology to conduct hearings and debate legislation. He is expected to present his findings to the House Democratic Caucus, and Ms. Pelosi, as early as the end of this week.

Mr. McGovern declined to be interviewed. But two members of the Rules Committee — Representatives Donna E. Shalala, Democrat of Florida, and Mr. Raskin — said the panel was planning its own remote workshop. Both said they sensed that Ms. Pelosi was eager to get back to a more regular way of doing business.

Scholars of government and some lawmakers have been pushing Congress to modernize and to adopt an emergency plan at least since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Discussions at the time centered on doomsday scenarios, in which a nuclear bomb or terrorist attack would decimate the legislative branch at the very time it was needed the most.

A bipartisan commission spearheaded by Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, issued a number of recommendations on how Congress could reconstitute itself, but most were shelved. The panel also considered other emergency situations, including a biological attack or pandemic that made it impossible for lawmakers to meet in person. Mr. Ornstein says Congress desperately needs a contingency plan.

“When we talked about this 17 years ago, we also shared that concern that you want to avoid a slippery slope, you want to avoid a situation where members just decide it is much more convenient to stay home, to not have to be on a plane every week,” Mr. Ornstein said. “My argument is, you can set this up with high hurdles only to be triggered in the event of an emergency.”

Since then, little has been done on the issue. Last January, when Democrats took over the House, Ms. Pelosi appointed a bipartisan committee to evaluate congressional procedures and technology upgrades, but it has not tackled questions about remote legislating or voting.

In response to the pandemic, the speaker has moved to allow rank-and-file members to introduce bills electronically, instead of in person as they have for more than two centuries. The move was cheered by some members of a loose-knit group of academics and technology experts, calling itself the Fix Congress Coalition, who have been offering opinions on the modernization panel.

Last fall, two months before the first case of the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, two members of the coalition warned in an opinion piece in The Hill newspaper that Congress was woefully ill-equipped to cope with a pandemic or other disaster that kept lawmakers from Washington. They called on the panel Ms. Pelosi appointed to “address this critical continuity of government gap.”

On Thursday, more than 40 former members of Congress will participate in a mock video hearing, along with technology experts and others from the Fix Congress Coalition, that is intended as a proof-of-concept session showing that online hearings can work. The witnesses will include military leaders who use secure communications as a routine matter of business, and lawmakers from Britain and other countries whose legislators are already working remotely.

“Our kids are going to school this way, the military is managing the national defense this way, corporations are running their operations around the world this way,” said Brian Baird, a Democrat and former congressman from Washington State who will lead the session. “The only body that seems to be incapable or unwilling to do it is the Congress of the United States. We want to demonstrate that it is possible, and encourage the Congress to move forward.”

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