Remote voting by Congress? Not so fast.
Amid a growing pandemic where social interaction could threaten health, many questions have been raised about the continuity of operations on Capitol Hill. Not for the first time, remote voting is among the ideas being floated. It has been more frequently mentioned in congressional discourse since smartphones became commonplace.
Over the past couple of weeks, however, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have swatted it down more than once, and they’re right: it’s a bad idea. While it may be necesary in life-threatening circumstances, it should remain an option only in emergency situations. Otherwise, it has long-term, negative consequences for the functioning of the legislative branch.
Most proposals would limit
remote voting to “noncontroversial” measures–basically, bills considered
under “suspension of the rules,” a process requiring two-thirds passage (290
votes in the House). Many bills are noncontroversial. Congress renames a lot of
post offices and regulates federal lands, among other bills of relatively minor
significance. But even “noncontroversial” legislation can be a big deal. The “Doc-Fix,”
which affected billions of dollars of healthcare spending, frequently passed under
suspension of the rules. The second coronavirus assistance package, set to pass
this week, is currently lined up on the suspension calendar. Suspension bills
prosecutorial authority, empowered inspectors general, and significantly
changed how programs operate. Yes, the suspension calendar is primarily a
vehicle for less controversial legislation, but not all non-controversial
legislation is insignificant
Even worse, remote voting distances members from the policymaking process. Among the worst features of the current process is the gulf between rank-and-file members and the substance of legislating. Members are shut out of the floor amendment process. Leaders structure major agreements and present them take-it-or-leave-it packages. Omnibus legislation forces members to accept sometimes dozens of policy riders that would otherwise receive greater vetting if voted upon individually. Agencies receive less routine oversight and formal direction because regular but important reauthorizations fail to garner enough political or media attention. Agency spending bills escape scrutiny by passing en bloc rather than separately. If we want more individual member influence, putting distance between members and the process does the opposite. It gives leaders even more opportunity to legislate in secret, manipulate the process, and otherwise keep rank and file in the dark. For rank-and-file members to hold their congressional leaders accountable – whether committee chairs or party leaders – they need to, at a minimum, be physically present. “Remoting it in” has consequences.
Congress is a social institution. It operates on rules, precedents, norms, but also importantly, relationships. Social ties link members from uncommon partisan backgrounds and regions. The stories members tell about how they form bipartisan alliances often start from casual interactions. Members talk about forging legislative relationships over their common affinity for dogs or college pride, among others. Former Senators Kennedy and Hatch formed a working relationship over decades of service together, mostly famously on the child health insurance program. Sens. Cory Booker and Jim Inhofe bonded over common interest in brownfields reauthorization. The late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) had strong relationships with many legislators but perhaps most surprisingly with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), among the most conservative members in Congress. These relationships do not form through text or an app. There is no congressional Match.com linking legislators with common legislative interests across the aisle. But if Congress has a hope of fostering those bonds, preserving the few social interactions currently available, like walking to the floor for a vote, cannot be so easily abandoned.
Congress is, fundamentally, a human institution, serving human interests, and pursuing human problems and concerns. Even in desperate times, we need to preserve that institutional humanity. And while hand-shaking and hugs may have to be put off, we need a Congress dedicated to maintaining social interaction and forming new relationships. Members can’t do that through an app.
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