“Congress literally does mean ‘coming together,’ and we forget how much of what takes place requires that,” he says. “It’s a much more complex place than just pushing a button one way or another on a roll call vote.”
What should, or could, change? And why hasn’t it happened yet? There are answers to those questions, some of them good, and some of them infuriating obstacles that Baird and others have hit on their way to reform.
In its 231-year history, Congress has proved itself deeply resistant to change. It usually does so only in a crisis. But the country is currently in a state of crisis, one renewing the tough questions about whether, in order to protect itself, Congress may have to find a way to scatter—questions that involve technology, the law and, this being Washington, politics.
One part of the experiment is already underway. Shortly before noon on Tuesday, a group of congressional expats and government experts gathered online for a trial run at conducting the often boring day-to-day business of Congress without being in the same place.
They met via the videoconferencing platform Zoom. From his home office just north of Seattle, Baird “gaveled” the session to order by striking a Buddhist singing bowl.
He then deferred to his co-chair, former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), sitting in his home office in the South Carolina town of Travelers Rest, for an opening statement on the topic at hand: a resolution honoring health care workers and first responders on the coronavirus front lines. A witness, Georgetown University’s Lorelei Kelly, weighed in from southwest Kansas, and political science professor Kevin Esterling soon offered an objection from his own home office in Riverside, California. Charles Johnson III, the parliamentarian in the House of Representatives from 1994 to 2004, spoke up on the phone from Bethesda, Maryland, to question whether votes were being properly recorded.
The session was not a runaway success. “It was utter chaos,” Marci Harris, one of the organizers of the Zoom session, says with a laugh. During the 2000s, Harris was a lawyer in the House working on the passage of Obamacare. She’s now CEO of POPVOX, a platform for lawmakers and their constituents to communicate on legislation, and she, along with two other former Hill aides—Georgetown’s Kelly and Daniel Schuman, policy director for progressive advocacy group Demand Progress—organized the session as a volunteer effort to test the remote hearing concept.
There were the usual teleconferencing woes. There were home-schooling background noises, and Johnson’s microphone echoed. But other issues were more specific and became apparent as the exercise played out. How were the participants playing staffers supposed to whisper guidance to the members of Congress they served? What was the best way to offer an amendment? Could the parliamentarian offer real-time feedback to the chair? Were people voting both yea and nay during voice votes, knowing they were off-screen and wouldn’t get caught? What if a member yelled “point of order”—a parliamentary move that can force a crucial stop in proceedings—and the chair simply refused to hit “unmute”?
Still, to a reporter watching from home, it felt a lot like the real-world activity it was meant to simulate: a congressional hearing and bill markup.
Much of what Congress does isn’t so different from any office, and that means it could easily piggyback on the growing suite of tools for telework. The truth is, for all the talk of coming together, much of Congress is already “remote”: Members often pop in and out of hearings and dash from their offices to the House and Senate floors to vote; the staffers in Hill offices already watch floor debates via live video streams. The Zoom platform offers “breakout rooms” akin to the sidebar discussions that take place on the House and Senate floors.
But Congress is not just another workplace: It’s a gathering defined by public accountability, with two centuries of rules and norms that thread back to the Constitution itself. Even the idea of remote voting engenders profound pushback; this week, the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Rules put out a report concluding that remote voting poses serious challenges involving security, transparency, reliability and even mentions in the Constitution to “meeting,” “assembling” and “attendance.” Untested solutions raised worries about everything from foreign interference to the pressure members might face from outsiders while voting in private to the unreliability of communications networks to the difficulties in knowing a member is who he or she says he or she is. And hiccups, the report said, could destabilize trust in Congress.
Some advocates say it’s no surprise that it is the rank-and-file members rather than leaders agitating for remote voting, pointing out that they skew younger and are thus arguably more comfortable trusting technology with even enormously consequential tasks. Both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have in recent days balked at the idea of remote voting, and the public face in favor of it has become Katie Porter, a 46-year-old first-term Democratic congresswoman from California. (Porter, as it happens, is now self-quarantined and awaiting results of her own Covid-19 test after running a fever.)