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Why can't Congress vote from home?

People walk among U.S. flags with the U.S.

People walk among U.S. flags with the U.S. Capitol in the background on Sunday in Washington. Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

The main job of Congress is to vote on legislation. That's a problem if Congress has to go on an extended break over fears about the coronavirus, because Congress has a rule: No voting remotely, no matter what.

A bipartisan group of younger lawmakers is trying to change that. For the past four Congresses, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., has introduced a resolution to allow Congress to vote remotely on noncontroversial bills such as naming post offices. Eric A. "Rick" Crawford, R-Ark., has also joined in recent Congresses to introduce it. And it has gone nowhere.

But now that Congress is faced with exactly the kind of situation they were trying to prepare members for, could that change? "How do we convene if we can't be there in person?" Swalwell said in an interview about why he wrote the resolution.

In a private meeting this week about whether Congress should stay or go - and what lawmakers under quarantine can do - a top House Democrat, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, N.Y., floated the idea of voting electronically, reported The Washington Post's Paul Kane. And Swalwell and Crawford said, for the first time, their colleagues are approaching them to remark on it. "I didn't see that kind of interest before," Swalwell said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told NPR that Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is writing a proposal about how senators could vote by telephone in case of an emergency, like coronavirus.

Even setting aside a pandemic that is particularly vicious toward an older population (read: Congress), the rationale for allowing Congress to work remotely at least some of the time makes a lot of sense. Some of the reasons floated to us by supporters on both sides of the aisle:

  • It would allow them more time with their constituents in their district.
  • It would allow younger lawmakers more time with their families and thus help make Congress something younger people would be interested in. "Instead of getting up at 5:45 a.m. on Monday, letting my kids get themselves off to school and spending the entire day on airplanes to arrive at the House floor by 6:30 p.m." for a noncontroversial vote, said Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., who has three children, "I could get up, sign paperwork, have breakfast with my kids, make sure their backpacks are ready to go, and go into the office, spending from 9 to 1 on constituents meetings, and get on a 2:30 flight to Washington, D.C. If I could vote remotely even on that one vote, it would give me four more hours with my constituents and time with my children in the morning," she said.
  • It could make it easier for lawmakers financially not to have to spend so much on a second residence in an expensive place such as the District. On the extreme end of remote work, they'd be in the capital less often.
  • It could help reduce the influence of lobbyists if Congress weren't in the District all the time. "We talk about it as a drain-the-swamp issue," said John Pudner, an executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative group advocating political and democratic reforms. "Our line is: Wouldn't it be nicer if lobbyists had to fly to you as opposed to your constituents having to fly into D. C.? And aren't constituents at such a disadvantage for weighing in on any issue?"
  • It's a practice-what-you-preach kind of thing. "We are asking the whole country right now to adopt paid family leave and sick leave," Porter said of a top Democratic priority for dealing with the coronavirus, "and we have no mechanism for ever allowing a remote vote?"
  • The technology is there, so why not use it to make lawmakers' lives easier? "We have a few members who have implemented self-quarantine, and that means they have to forgo votes," Crawford said. "This would be an opportunity for them to be able to participate and be able to vote." He was out last year for a week for an injury. "That was time I could have been voting and not just convalescing at home," he said.

So why hasn't this happened?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., opposes the idea. She hasn't spoken publicly about this, but she did say it's Congress's job to stay in Washington: "We are the last to leave," she said this week about closing Congress's doors entirely.

There's also a concern Congress might not look as though it's doing its job if lawmakers aren't in Washington. "The concern I heard in the past was 'I don't want to hear people saying Congress is trying to avoid going to work,' " Swalwell said.

As The Washington Post's Kane pointed, during the anthrax scares after 9/11, Congress did get ridiculed for shutting down briefly.

Crawford said he hears from colleagues who worry it will be abused, to which he says: Put in safeguards such as letting leadership decide who gets to vote remotely and marking for the Congressional Record who does, so they have to explain it back home.

Others said it's tradition that keeps lawmakers on Capitol Hill full time. It's just the way things have been done.

"The fact this is controversial speaks to the stranglehold tradition has on this body," Porter said. "When you don't have diversity in this body, you don't have people pushing back on this."

She pointed out that, for a while, there were no women's restrooms near the floor of the House of Representatives, and that wasn't a problem for most lawmakers until women started winning elections.

Now, a younger class of lawmakers is coming into office, many of them from industries that regularly use technology to help diversify their workforce with young parents or people caring for seniors in their home, and expecting the same from Congress.

"We are a fifth of the way through this century," Crawford said, "and we are clinging to old-school processes."

There's also a control aspect here, Pudner said. Party leaders like their members in one place. They can tell them how to vote. They can make sure they're spending hours on the phone raising money for the party. That's much harder to do when your caucus is scattered across the country.

There is another big downside to more remote work for members of Congress: They have less time to spend with one another. The push to fly back home every weekend is one reason political scientists say Congress has become more partisan. There just isn't the camaraderie between Democrats and Republicans there used to be.

On that, Pudner in particular is nihilistic: Republicans and Democrats aren't really negotiating with each other anyway these days. So especially in a health crisis, he argues, just let Congress work remotely.

"I just don't see why in this day and age, Congress needs to stay and be an incubator for the coronavirus," he said.

Amber Phillips analyzes politics for The Washington Post's nonpartisan politics blog and authors The 5-Minute Fix newsletter, a rundown of the day's biggest political news. 

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