Saturday, November 28, 2020
Nov. 28, 2020

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Jayne: Modernize to aid governance

By , Columbian Opinion Editor
Published:

In the ocean that is the coronavirus, this is merely a drop. But it is an interesting exercise in considering the long-term effects of the pandemic, both large and small.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week was going to consider provisions for members to vote by proxy. That would allow representatives to cast votes from afar, a seemingly simple endeavor in this digital age.

So, they were going to consider it. And then they weren’t. And now they still might. And for those who are fascinated by the machinations of our federal government, there are interesting arguments on both sides.

Members of Congress, you see, are required to be in Washington, D.C., in order to vote on legislation. This is simply a rule for both chambers, not a law, and it is a rule being tested by the bizarre circumstances that result from social distancing. A couple weeks ago, there was to be a vote in the House of Representatives; they could have held a “voice” vote that does not require a quorum and been done with it. But one member insisted on a roll-call vote, requiring members to return from their home districts.

“I got on a plane and it was a red-eye and the second leg of my flight got cancelled,” Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. “I was calling all over trying to find a flight.” It’s not quite the horse-and-buggy and dirt-road days of the 1800s, but traveling between this Washington and that Washington can be a burden.

In extraordinary times where travel might be limited and people are supposed to stay away from each other, it makes sense for lawmakers to be able to vote remotely. Because, as we have been reminded throughout the pandemic, government actually has an important role to play in a well-functioning society. “I think there has to be a circumstance that allows the government to keep running,” Herrera Beutler said.

That has resulted in proposals to allow members to vote by proxy — have another member cast a vote in their name — or to vote remotely. Thus far, the ideas have not gained traction among leadership in either chamber; they should, at least for extreme circumstances such as a global pandemic.

But in a larger sense, like when the pandemic has passed and vaccinations are routine and coronavirus is no longer a life-disrupting force, the issue touches upon the basic functions of the federal government.

What if lawmakers could vote remotely all the time? What if Congressional members gathered in D.C. for, say, two weeks out of the year? No, that doesn’t mean they could vote on an impeachment inquiry from a beach in Aruba; it means they could spend most of their time in their home districts. “I think it behooves us most of the time to be home, buying gas, seeing how the roads are,” Herrera Beutler said.

Some have suggested that keeping representatives at home and away from lobbyists would be a benefit. Herrera Beutler said: “When it comes to lobbyists, I don’t think they’re the devil. You have to trust your representative, and if you don’t you shouldn’t vote for them.”

While there are reasonable arguments on both sides, overall there are benefits to having your representative in Washington, D.C., advocating for things that are important to your district and developing relationships with people from both sides of the aisle. “When you’re on the House floor,” Herrera Beutler said, “you can speak with other members and leadership. We’re so polarized right now; the more you build a relationship with someone, the harder it is to demonize them. It opens up an opportunity to look them in the eye.”

So, maybe the coronavirus will force Congress to alter how it does business; maybe it won’t. There is no telling how the pandemic will change our society and our economy and our government. But clearly there needs to be a stopgap that allows lawmakers to vote despite extreme circumstances.

“We’re not a 17th or 18th century institution,” Herrera Beutler said. “I think it’s OK to modernize.”

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