How the Pandemic Made Congress Embrace Technology

Both the House and the Senate are getting digitally savvy during COVID-19. Why they shouldn’t give up when the crisis ends.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Congress to embrace new technologies and processes. The greatest innovation in Congress was not its willingness to conduct hearings remotely and institute proxy voting, although those measures are notable, but rather the willingness of Congress to innovate at all. This unprecedented agility in a traditionally inflexible institution that has changed little in over 230 years should not disappear when the pandemic ends. Rather, it should mark the start of a new way of doing business.

One year ago, in the early days of the pandemic, we were the first to publicly urge Congress to adopt new rules and processes to keep its doors open (in a manner of speaking). Rules required lawmakers to meet in person to act and congressional procedures were notoriously paper bound.

To its credit, the House of Representatives moved quickly to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis. The Committee on House Administration set up a “Telework Readiness Center” on March 4, 2020 and encouraged congressional offices to buy equipment for remote operations. No objections were raised when, on April 6, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a new system for the digital submission of bills, co-sponsorships, and lawmakers’ statements. We were astonished as at least a decade’s worth of overdue modernization were implemented in 48 hours.

The more deliberative elements of lawmaking were a heavier lift. At first, the idea of remote committee work was so unprecedented that 60 bipartisan retired lawmakers pitched in with a “mock hearing” to help their former colleagues get comfortable with the idea. Committees began experimenting soon after. The first (unofficial) remote proceeding was held by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on April 28 and the first remote Senate proceeding was held on April 30 by the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Both were a success.

Unfortunately, the window for bipartisan cooperation closed by late spring as pandemic safety became politicized. The House adopted, on a party line basis, new rules for official remote committee proceedings and “proxy” voting on the House floor. House Republicans soon brought the matter to court, arguing that the practice of proxy voting—in which a distant member directs another member on how to vote for them—was unconstitutional. The lawsuit was dismissed in August, appealed in November, and is increasingly untenable now that so many GOP lawmakers have embraced the practice. Recently, a dozen GOP lawmakers cast votes from Orlando, where they were attending CPAC, in apparent contravention of the House’s rules that limit proxy votes to health-related matters.

The Senate has been less willing to adopt necessary changes. It rolled out one notable innovation: a new software called “Quill,” which allows senators to digitally sign legislative documents and letters. Senate committees began holding hybrid proceedings last year, allowing senators to participate from afar but still requiring a majority to be physically present to act. Senators still cannot cast votes remotely, though Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) proposed legislation to make that possible in emergencies. While Senate Democrats could try to update the rules, Republicans may block the effort. With a 50-50 Senate, an absent member could change who is in power.

The pandemic forced Congress to do something that it rarely does—to experiment and innovate. What have we learned?

To no one’s surprise, we learned that in-person deliberation and the relationships built when lawmakers are physically present are important. Remote deliberations cannot replace in-person legislating. However, proxy voting has proven adequate to keep the House open. It has serious limitations—it is slow and limits the power of individual Members of Congress—so it should be upgraded to remote deliberations. This would empower representatives to fully participate no matter where they are. The Senate, by comparison, has yet to change its rules to allow for remote participation, and it must catch up to the House.

More aspects of lawmaking can be accomplished electronically than was previously thought. These new tools should remain available. In addition, lawmakers may decide to maintain the option for remote participation for health or family reasons after the pandemic passes—a practice adopted in other countries around illness and maternal leave.

Some unexpected benefits have emerged. For example, many offices report that remote operations make it easier to incorporate district and state offices into substantive policy work. Lawmakers found new ways to interact with constituents and reclaim work time by reducing travel. In the future, remote operations and rotating schedules may help alleviate office space constraints on Capitol Hill. Remote internships may open opportunities for more diverse candidates to get Congressional experience. And committees now can hear from witnesses across the country and around the world by videoconference.

Congress must build on this momentum and its recent experiences to upgrade itself in support of a more modern Congress and a more perfect union.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Daniel Schuman

Daniel Schuman is policy director with Demand Progress Education Fund and editor of the First Branch Forecast.

Marci Harris

Marci Harris is CEO and co-founder of POPVOX, a nonpartisan platform for civic engagement and governing.