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Washington Post:Congress has a better option than Kevin McCarthy’s plan to work through the pandemic

Opinion by Editorial Board Published May 6, 2020 at 1:59 p.m. EDT

THE 1918 FLU didn’t shut down Congress. The House of Representatives passed bills at a snail’s pace with only some members in attendance, betting on no objections. Three lawmakers died. Now the past could repeat itself, unless legislators take advantage of what the present can offer: technology that could spare Congress the need to operate so slowly, at so high a risk, when so much is at stake.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) released a “Plan for the People’s House” this week that he believes will let the chamber, whose minority he leads, “fully perform its key functions without . . . sacrificing bedrock norms.” The strategy constitutes progress; it’s certainly a leap ahead of what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has done, which is to send lawmakers as old as 86 back to work en masse. But while the hybrid approach Mr. McCarthy’s plan advocates — having some members sit in committee in person while others participate from afar — is reasonable, it would have been more compelling in the analog era. Today, there’s another choice.

Beyond this, the plan pushes for logistical and safety-boosting tweaks such as voting in multiple waves (as nearly 400 members did in late April) or installing plexiglass dividers along meeting-room daises. Those are thoughtful changes, and they’ll be essential to phasing Congress back in when phasing-in is in order. But the acute phase of the pandemic is far from over; Washington’s infection numbers tick steadily upward. Congress is like any other workplace: It ought to open only when public health experts deem doing so safe. If it opens before then, an outbreak could shut it down all over again — and kill people.

This might be worth the risk if there weren’t a better way — but there is one. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) convened a virtual roundtable last week on the very appropriate topic of legislative continuity in times of crisis; it went well. The D.C.-based firm Markup has a product that facilitates the amendment of bills from afar. Lawmakers could demo it for a low-stakes measure and show the skeptics that it works. Several states are experimenting with voting remotely, proving it’s possible through methods as complicated as an encrypted vote-logging system and as simple as a mass video conference in which members raise their hands to signify “aye.”

There’s no excuse to act as if it were 1918 when it’s 2020. Congress shouldn’t settle for a diminished role amid this pandemic, and it also shouldn’t settle for remaining stuck in the past.


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