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Congress is virtual in the new era

As Congress returned to work this week, the nation watched the very first virtual hearing. Senators heard testimony from the members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on video conference. If they did not appear remotely, those senators attending in person were seated far apart, many wore masks or bandanas, and each had cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer at their places on the rostrum. This hearing showed us that Congress, like the country as a whole, is working to adapt to the reality of the pandemic.

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to telework, such meetings have become the reality of being productive. Many of us could probably even relate to the fact that his dog spoke up with a bark on the unmuted line of Senator Lamar Alexander. This virtual hearing, however, reflects a step forward for a body often hesitant to embrace technology. Unlike the military, diplomatic corps, intelligence community, or other areas of the executive branch that regularly hold meetings over the internet to bring together those far afield, Congress has resisted such video conferences.

It is certainly hard to replace the dynamic of the rostrum of members of Congress arcing around the table of witnesses, the crowd in attendance, the bright television lights, and the flashing cameras. Compared with the sometimes chaotic atmosphere, the video conference hearing lacks a lot of the drama of politics. The need for such virtual meetings reflects both the current crisis and the need for Congress to consider how to conduct oversight remotely and further embrace technology to better do its work.

While it is one thing for members of Congress to demonstrate that they are trying to return to work, the coronavirus, not political posturing, will determine the health and safety for not only lawmakers, but also staffers, police officers, ground keepers, and more who keep Capitol Hill running and secure. The cramped nature of the many offices in Congress indeed makes social distancing challenging, just as it is challenging in the West Wing of the White House, yet our nation cannot wait for the pandemic to pass before Congress can resume its full legislative and oversight duties.

Experts have warned that the coronavirus is likely to come in waves, and even when the current pandemic has run its course, there will always be the risk of the flu and other deadly diseases. Back in September 2001, it was the bravery of the passengers of that United Airlines flight that likely ensured that there was still a Capitol Hill for Congress. Terrorism and war will always remain a security risk, as does the threat of a natural disaster, as Washington is hardly sheltered from those Atlantic Ocean hurricanes.

All of these are scenarios that experts have long warned about in terms of continuity of government and the need for members of Congress to have the ability to work remotely or otherwise in alternative locations. In order for government to function under the Constitution, the legislative branch must be able to operate both safely and efficiently in times of such crisis.

Technology will also allow for new methods of oversight and the ability to call witnesses from further afield. Even if voting remotely is considered a bridge too far, virtual hearings could allow for oversight to continue even as members return to their districts. Military commanders and diplomats overseas need not schedule a return to Washington if they can testify on video conference. This action Congress could also pay greater attention to the foreign policy and national security prerogatives it has let atrophy.

As Congress continues to use technology to do its work, it will hopefully become more familiar with technology and its significance in our culture, commerce, and innovation in America. The current crisis and future ones will force Congress to adapt to the times as it conducts work. Technology is a critical tool to embrace for the safety and efficiency of the legislative branch, even if it misses the drama that Frank Capra would have wanted.

Dan Mahaffee is the senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.

Tags Congress Coronavirus Government Internet Military President Senate

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