Pandemic ‘accelerating’ House modernization as lawmakers push for remote votes, hearings

The House, after some initial reluctance, is taking steps for members and their staff to work remotely more easily during the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting Tuesday, House legislators must electronically submit floor documents, including bills, resolutions, cosponsors and extensions of remarks, to a “dedicated and secure email system,” rather than hand-delivering hard copies to the Speaker’s lobby or to Democrat and Republican cloakrooms.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in a “Dear Colleagues” letter sent Monday, said the upcoming rules change reflects talks with the House Rules and Administration committees, as well as the Office of the Clerk and the Office of the Parliamentarian.

“During this time of crisis, House leadership and institutional staff continue to examine all possible steps to protect the health and safety of Members and our staffs, so that we are best able to serve our constituents,” Pelosi wrote.

The House will accept electronic submissions when it holds pro forma sessions, as well as 15 minutes before and after each session. This week, the House will hold sessions this Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. and Friday at 9 a.m.

The House Clerk’s office will send members and staff detailed guidance on how to proceed with online submissions.

Read more: Congressional News

The temporary rules change will remain in effect through April 19, although Pelosi said that the House might extend those deadlines “if continued disruption of House operations remains necessary due to the pandemic.”

Pelosi said the House would resume normal practice for floor submissions “once the House returns full-time to the Capitol for regular business.”

Possible turning point for congressional operations

More significantly, however, the temporary rules change could mark a turning point in the case good-government groups have built for allowing the House and Senate to vote remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Congress will reconvene on April 20, but Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin that it remains unclear how the House and Senate would go on with business as usual.

“A lot of us are saying, ‘Why don’t we do that remotely?’ Because it’s not difficult for me to get to Washington, but if you’re living in California, that means you’ve got to commute across the country, which is something we don’t want to see happen,” Cardin said. “It’s unclear whether we will find some way to telecommute, including voting. The House would like to do it and their leadership’s in favor of it. The Senate would like to do it, but our leadership on the Republican side is against it, so we’ll see what happens.”

From a logistics standpoint, former members of Congress and volunteers from good-government groups have demonstrated that the House could, in practice, continue with business as usual by holding hearings and markups through video conference.

Former House Parliamentarian Charles Johnson III and former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) participated in the March 24 mock hearing via Zoom, while former Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), once the chairman of the Science and Technology’s emergency and environment subcommittee, served as the “chairman” of the mock session.

Daniel Schuman, a former Congressional Research Service legislative attorney, now the policy director at Demand Progress, served as the committee clerk during the mock hearing.

Up until this point, Congress has only focused on ensuring continuity of operations in the context of emergencies like the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or the 2001 spread of anthrax through the mail, Schuman said.

Read more: Cybersecurity News

“What they haven’t considered is when the danger arises from proximity to other people, when just being present when just coming together creates the danger for members of Congress,” he said, “And if this is something that is prolonged, if you have a prolonged pandemic, what it means is that the legislative branch simply cannot function.”

After the 9/11 attacks, the House created a task force to consider how to keep Congress running in case of an emergency like another attack, or now the pandemic.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) was on that task force. In a recent interview, he said one of the main issues that he was pushing hard for was the creation of an e-Congress to allow members to vote and debate remotely.

“Given video conferencing technologies or how credit card transactions take place every day, why couldn’t we and why shouldn’t we create some type of remote type of capability for debating and voting, only in the rarest of circumstances,” Langevin said. “We can’t just let the business of the government come to a screeching halt. And yet, that is exactly where we are today. In some ways, my worst fears were realized because of the coronavirus.”

Langevin said he still supports and wants to be a part of a new effort, if there is one, to create an e-Congress. He said he spoke with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the Rules Committee, about this idea.

“It will take a well-thought-out effort but I’m confident this can be done,” Langevin said. “I know we will not rush anything through Congress and we will have a well thought out plan and look at a variety of technologies out there. But video teleconferencing has come so far and people are comfortable with tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. I think it can be done and clearly, everyone is wishing we had that capability today. A lot of members are surprised and frustrated to find out the rules do not allow us to do much of anything remotely. We need to have this capability going forward and coronavirus demonstrated it’s needed.”

Marci Harris, the CEO and co-founder of PopVox, a nonpartisan platform for legislative information and advocacy, said the goal of the March 24 mock hearing was to find and confront the challenges lawmakers will probably face if they held a virtual hearing.

“Every test run is messy. There are lots of things you could not possibly have thought about until you’ve actually tried it,” Harris said.

Meanwhile, the mock hearing also put into practice ideas that Harris had already discussed with lawmakers, having testified before the House Modernization Committee last June on ways the House could modernize its community outreach.

Pandemic could mean faster modernization timeline

Harris also served as a member of the American Political Science Association’s task force on congressional reform, which issued its final recommendations last October.

Among those recommendations, the task force observed that while Congress continues to appropriate money for federal agencies to modernize their legacy IT, lawmakers for years had only set aside limited funding for the legislative branch to upgrade its own technical capacity.

Read more: IT Modernization News

“What’s really interesting about this situation now is that it is accelerating the need for Congress to go through that kind of evolution, for what might have taken years, in the span of a few weeks,” Harris said. Of course, the question is, ‘Well, are they up for that?’ And the answer is they have to be.”

Schuman also testified before the House Modernization Committee last May on making legislative information more transparent.

Once back in session, Congress faces a full slate of must-pass legislation, including the annual National Defense Authorization Act, the fiscal 2021 spending bill for civilian government, as well as subsequent rounds of emergency spending to counter the pandemic.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told The Federal Drive that his colleagues have moved forward under a “normal timeline” for appropriation deliberations, although he added that the committee has pushed back some because of the coronavirus.

“I know there have been some questions about whether some of these hearings can be done electronically by Zoom. I think about the number of meetings and conference calls and sessions I’ve had, particularly on Zoom and Skype,” Warner said. “[It] was a little strange at first, but I’m getting a little more comfortable with it, and I’m actually probably more stacked up the last few days than I would be on a normal day on the Hill.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), in an interview last Thursday, said having members continue to meet in-person for hearings and vote would continue to put lawmakers, their families, Capitol Hill Police and other staff at risk of catching the virus.

“We have to look at emergency use of remote voting to get the business of the people done and not risk public health and safety in the process,” Connolly said. “We’re working on that, and my hope is that something will happen that will allow us to do that. But right now, that mechanism is not easy and does not exist.”

Staffers still working off-site

While telework for members of Congress remains an open issue, congressional staffers, in many cases, have been able to continue with their functions.

Connolly said his office had recently purchased 15 computers and iPads to expand telework capacity. Everyone who works in his office, he added, can access the House network remotely and can work from home.

“We’re not meeting face-to-face with any groups of people, or any individuals, for that matter. And we’re not taking foot traffic in our district offices. We’re doing everything by phone or Zoom, and that’s working very well,” Connolly said.

Read more: Coronavirus Resources for feds

Staff can still choose to come into the office, but the workspace is usually limited to one person at a time.

Whether that’s typical of how other congressional offices operation,  however, remains unclear.

“The old cliché that Congress is 541 small businesses really applies, in this case,” PopVox’s Harris said, adding that at least one congressional office had already been holding weekly Zoom meetings with district offices.

Meanwhile, other offices support members that struggle with more fundamental tasks like email.

“The kind of vast differences in the way offices are run and the way that they use technology is really showing itself right now,” Harris said. “And that’s why it’s so difficult to help Congress adopt technology, because nobody has the authority to mandate how offices use technology or run themselves.”

In a committee hearing last July,  Chief Administrative Officer Philip Kiko said his office in 2017 fielded a large number of requests from freshman members for more modern office accommodations, like video conferencing capabilities.

As for Connolly’s office, he said he recently received a quarterly report that showed his office reached 1.5 million individuals through mailings, town hall meetings by phone and e-newsletters.

“We can do our business through teleworking and doing it and do it efficiently,” Connolly said.

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