Democracy

Remote Control

Legislating in an Empty Chamber

The outbreak of COVID-19 has changed the habits of ordinary citizens the world over. We don masks and gloves in supermarkets, and follow one-way arrows up and down the aisles in search of that elusive box of pasta. We interact with pixelated versions of our families, friends and colleagues on 14-inch monitors. And we are still workshopping the least awkward alternatives to a handshake. But as we adapt to this “new normal”, the US House of Representatives struggles with finding its own procedures that strike the right balance between preserving tradition and responding to the challenges of a global health crisis. Fortunately, the House need not start from scratch. The European Parliament has already set a path for Washington to follow.

Stuck in the Swamp

In 1869, Thomas Edison invented an electronic vote recorder to tally Congress’ “yeas” and “nays”. Congressmen at the time took one look at the device and ironically deemed it too slow for their liking. In the following century, the House would record its preferences through in-person roll call votes. And in 1970, the House passed a Legislative Reorganization Act, which, among other things, introduced electronic voting to the chamber, reducing the average voting time on legislation from 45 to 15 minutes. It would take three more years to put the infrastructure in place for members to cast their votes by pushing a button, a seismic reform back then.

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The House would carry on this way for the rest of the millennium, before being jarred from its routine by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Understanding that they had to begin thinking about continuity in case of disaster, natural or manmade, Congress tasked a group of experts with developing innovative solutions so that the House could conduct business under extraordinary circumstances. After years of studying the issue, the notoriously sclerotic legislative body adopted only one minor recommendation. It reduced the number of members needed for a quorum.

Fast forward to 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic raised new questions about the wisdom of having 435 legislators congregate in the House chamber. Unsure what direction to take, Democrats on the Rules Committee sought new alternatives. A quickly issued report offered three proposals. First, change the unanimous consent rules to require more than one opposing voice to block the legislative process. Second, introduce proxy voting, which would allow members to vote on behalf of absent colleagues, thereby promoting social distancing among the fewer people present. Third, permit remote voting by email or another electronic method.

The debate highlighted chronically high partisanship by pitting pro-remote-voting Democrats against status-quo Republicans. In the end, the House decided to do nothing and offered a wide variety of explanations, from cybersecurity to concerns about the constitutionality of the proposed reforms, for its inaction.

While the House remained mired in the past, the European Parliament ventured forth.

Brussels Breaks the Mold

Looking at the same landscape facing his American counterparts, European Parliament President David Sassoli announced on March 25, 2020, that his legislature “must remain open, because a virus cannot bring down democracy”. With that, a process was set in motion to find a way for more than 700 legislators from 27 countries to hold committee meetings, debate legislation and, yes, vote.

It was not a simple process, but the political will existed to get it done. Changing the parliament’s Rules of Procedure provided the legal and technical framework for remote voting. Amendments were made to Rule 186 on the right to vote individually and in person, Rule 187 on the use of electronic voting systems, and Rule 192 on technical arrangements for electronic voting.

Executing the changes turned out to be surprisingly straightforward. Members began to participate in plenary sessions via video connection, with each legislator receiving voting documents by email. Members would mark their votes on these forms, sign them, and return a scanned or photographed copy of the document to Brussels. Despite some complaints about PDF formatting and worries that members would get spammed by a never-ending flood of “reply all” emails from colleagues, the European Parliament on March 26, 2020, voted remotely for the first time in its history and passed a legislative package to address the economic impact of COVID-19.

No Black Swan

While the full extent of the virus’ human and economic toll remains unclear, one thing is certain: This pandemic will not be the last. But the current crisis offers an opportunity to prepare for the next one. We can identify our institutions’ shortcomings and fix them. The European Parliament has taken the lead on that front. It’s critical for the US to keep pace.

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Anthony T. Silberfeld

Director, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation

anthony.silberfeld@bfna.org