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Technology in Congress Part 2: Where We’re Going

As we discussed in part one, the pace of technological change in Congress has always lagged behind the private sector. The differences between the two chambers are evident in this: The House uses electronic voting, yet the Senate still resorts to voice or roll call votes.  While tradition has its place, there are times that saying “but this is the way we’ve always done it” is no longer a good thing, and rapid change is necessary to meet the demands of the nation.

Member offices continue to innovate in the area of constituent communication, as discussed in part one of this blog.  They are using technologies such as tele-town halls, Facebook and Twitter that did not even exist 10 years ago.  Who knows? Ten years from now you might have your Member of Congress personally explaining his or her latest vote via a hologram in your living room.

An interesting proposal for change has once again presented itself on Capitol Hill. In July, Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and Representative Steve Pearce (R-NM) proposed a change in House rules that would permit Members to perform several of their duties from their district. In true congressional fashion, the resolution was given a long-winded name to accompany a memorable acronym in order to garner support; and so the Members Operating to be Innovative and Link Everyone, or MOBILE, resolution was introduced.

So will this be the next major tech shift and allow Congress to spend even less time in DC? That is yet to be seen. But in the digital age, one can always speculate on which direction our advancements will take us. The MOBILE proposal will at least prompt a conversation on how Americans want the national legislature to function as we move further into the digital age. While it is unlikely to be implemented anytime soon (remember the House took 100 years to embrace electronic voting, first proposed by Thomas Edison), the resolution would amend the House rules to conduct some legislative business while utilizing the technology available in 21st century America.

The bipartisan proposal would allow Members to vote remotely on measures considered under the suspension of the rules, or “suspension calendar”. These votes are non-controversial, often receive support from both sides of the aisle and require a two-thirds majority to pass. Voting would be conducted using a secure remote voting system, likely set up in a Member’s district office. The MOBILE proposal would also allow Members to participate in committee hearings from their district office, potentially granting them an additional day at home.

The idea has good intentions, as it would provide more time for constituents and Members to work together. It may even reduce the demands of travel that many lawmakers have to make in order to spend Monday evenings through Thursday afternoons in Washington – and most Members would likely agree that eliminating even one red eye flight would be a positive.

In a joint interview with HuffPost Live (via video conference, appropriately enough), Representatives Swalwell and Pearce explained the benefits of their proposal. Representative Swalwell emphasized that by adopting the MOBILE proposal, Members could be in two places at once, spending more time in the district with constituents and less time in DC around lobbyists and special interests. He also highlighted that new technologies have helped businesses in his Silicon Valley district operate more efficiently by reducing travel time and increasing productivity. Allowing votes on less controversial business from the district could potentially cut down the time needed for votes under suspension once Members arrive in DC, which Swalwell pointed out make up 52 percent of all votes held.

While some Members may find their travel to DC to be the most onerous part of their week, others have a difficult enough time simply reaching all of their constituents back home. Congressman Pearce addressed this issue, expressing the difficulty in reaching every voter in a district that covers 70,000 square miles. In addition, he sees this resolution as a way for his voters to get information on his votes directly from their local news sources:

We’d be accessible to local press. Right now there is not one newspaper or radio station in my district that’s able to send correspondents here [to Washington, DC] to watch us…

Pearce also recommended that constituents attend the remote votes within the district office, as well as holding discussions on the upcoming vote until the last possible moment – arguably promoting accountability to the voters by allowing more people to participate in the debate. That is to say, it would expand the number of opinions the Member hears before a vote the voters can be confident knowing that their voice is being heard.

But does the House need to change the way it operates to allow for more time in the district? One of the more common complaints from veterans of both Chambers is that our lawmakers today don’t spend enough time together in Washington.  It is hard to call yourself a Congress if you never meet with each other.   Not only do Members not spend time building relationships and working on solutions to the nation’s pressing issues, but they and their families never get to know each other or spend time outside the Hill together, which some say has led to the breakdown in civility, bipartisanship, and consensual decision making.

And the security and legislative arguments against remote voting are equally as strong; allowing official business to be conducted outside of DC raises more questions than solutions:

  • Will the Members enjoy the same level of security when voting in the district as they do in Washington?
  • Will every Informational Technology staffer in the district be able to diagnose problems with the remove voting system?
  • How will the House verify that it is actually the Members themselves voting, since that is the one task they are prohibited from delegating?

With 435 Representatives operating outside of Capitol Hill, remote voting could make for a technological headache, not to mention a potential safety hazard. The United States Capitol Police do a tremendous job of keeping lawmakers and staff safe while allowing visitors to enjoy the sights of their national legislature. This level of security would need to be reflected at every district office.

From a legislative perspective, if there were a glitch in a Member’s voting system, they would not have the opportunity to vote on paper, as they currently do by handing the House teller a ballot which is colored green (yea vote), red (nay vote) or orange (abstention). In theory, there could be a roll call to confirm each Member’s vote, but the rarely used procedure would ultimately prolong voting and defeat the purpose of having Members vote outside of DC as an argument for increased productivity.

Aside from the physical concerns that go along with remote voting, there are some philosophical issues that would arise from such a system. The Founding Founders intended for democracy in America to evolve with the times, putting the responsibility upon the people to adapt as changes to society occurred. But there is a real argument to be made that Representatives are elected to go to Washington and do the work of the voters.

It would have been much easier for early Members of Congress to simply submit their votes on paper and send it to Washington by mail carrier – but they went to the Capitol because they were elected to do so.

But then again, these are conversations that Members should have in order to decide what ideas are good for democracy. As we stated earlier, there were certainly years when some lawmakers had websites, and other didn’t. Today we use Facebook and Twitter and other social media applications as a metric of how tech-savvy of Member is. What the next step in the digital age will be is really anyone’s guess – and that has made the 21st century very exciting. But that still does not mean it is a good idea to start jumping hoops in order to convenience the people who ran for office in the first place. That is to say, if the travel is too much to handle, they don’t have to run for Congress.

By requiring our lawmakers to be present when voting, they demonstrate dedication to our democratic principles, which may be more important than increasing the amount of time they spend with constituents. Because after all, if the democratic system breaks down, then what is the point of having voters?

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Dan Risko is a staff assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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