Editor’s Note: David B. Cohen is a professor of political science and assistant director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron. Follow him on Twitter @POTUSProf. Taylor J. Swift is a policy analyst for Demand Progress, focusing on Congressional transparency, capacity and efficiency. Follow him on Twitter @Taylor_J_Swift. Robert Alexander is a professor of political science and founding director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University. He is also the author of “Representation and the Electoral College.” Follow him on Twitter: @onuprof. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
President Donald Trump recently claimed that we are at war – not with a foreign nation, but with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), a newly discovered virus that causes coronavirus disease or Covid-19. The World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic, and despite travel restrictions and orders to shelter in place, the virus has spread throughout the US and infected members of Congress.
Sen. Rand Paul, who tested positive for the virus, was in contact with many of his colleagues in the days leading up to his diagnosis. A number of senators, including Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Mitt Romney, have self-quarantined. In the House of Representatives, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ben McAdams have tested positive, with Lizzie Fletcher, Ayanna Pressley and Katie Porter among the almost two dozen members currently self-isolating.
Given the danger of the coronavirus’ spread, politicians on both sides of the aisle have floated the possibility of working remotely. But the House Rules Committee issued a report highlighting the security and legal concerns of voting electronically, and leadership in both the House and Senate has shut down the idea.
On Friday, many members of the House expressed their frustration at being called back to Washington to vote on the massive stimulus relief bill after plans for a voice vote fell through.
As the crisis continues, there is a very real possibility that members of Congress may not be able to meet in person. More members of Congress could be diagnosed with Covid-19, while others may be required to self-isolate if they come in contact with someone who has been infected. If enough lawmakers get sick or self-isolate, Congress could cease to function due to a lack of a quorum.
Given the magnitude of the public health crisis and the unprecedented economic disruption, our government cannot afford to shut down. It has become obvious over the last few days that Congress must take steps to make sure it can continue to function in the midst of this or any other unforeseen crisis. It must prepare for this possibility now – just last week, the entire Georgia state legislature was urged to self-quarantine after a member tested positive for Covid-19. The US Congress could be next.
Members of Congress are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, given the higher mortality rates among the elderly. Members of the 116th Congress are much older than employees in your typical workplace – the average age is 57 in the House and 62 in the Senate with many septuagenarians and octogenarians in the ranks.
While morbid, it is worth considering the worst-case scenario. If a number of our lawmakers die from the coronavirus, the disruption to the House of Representatives would be especially pronounced. Unlike in the Senate, where the 17th Amendment grants state legislatures the ability to empower governors to appoint someone to fill an empty seat in the event of a senator’s death, the US Constitution requires that vacant House seats be filled by election. Holding a special election is a lengthy process and would be made even more challenging during a pandemic – many states have already postponed their primary elections due to the risks of in-person voting – and communities that end up with an empty seat could be left without representation at an hour when it would be especially critical.
Congress must take steps to prioritize the health and safety of lawmakers, staff, press, and capitol support employees. Lawmakers have in recent days and weeks continued to gather despite the repeated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for social distancing. While this fortress mentality may be acceptable during other emergency situations, Congress must embrace a new way to legislate remotely in this one.
Both the House speaker and the Senate majority leader could invoke an emergency remote session, which would require a vote to enable electronic voting for 30 days and allow each chamber the chance to extend this period if necessary. Utilizing temporary, emergency-based, changes to the rules would also help avoid the unintended consequences of governing remotely once the pandemic is over.
Adopting a digital approach and using secure technology to maintain operations and transparency during this crisis would allow members to openly deliberate, legislate, and conduct oversight of the executive branch. All proceedings could be recorded, livestreamed, and open for public viewership. Setting up digital communication systems will take time and resources, meaning Congress must include funding in its next round of supplemental funds. In the meantime, Congress needs to look into software and services that are open, safe and secure.
This idea has gained momentum recently. On March 23, nearly 70 House Democrats sent a letter to House leadership in support of voting remotely while Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a resolution to change the Senate rules to allow for remote voting in an emergency. President Trump endorsed the idea during his March 22 press conference commenting: “I would be totally in favor of it on a temporary basis.”
The time to enact a rule change for a remote Congress is now. Members may continue to get sick or self-quarantine at an alarming rate. Future travel to and from home districts will become more difficult as the situation worsens – especially if domestic air travel is halted in the near future. While a temporary change to the body that has always had a culture of in-person communication and problem-solving would be extraordinary, it is necessary to ensure the continuity of Congress at a time when the American people need support and leadership.
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In these unprecedented times, the Congress must do all in its power to make sure it can continue to serve the American people, especially under the worst of circumstances.