Why Is Congress on Recess in the Middle of a Pandemic?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to even entertain the idea of remote voting.
April 2, 2020, 7:18pm
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to even entertain the idea of remote voting.

As millions of Americans adjust to working from home and brace for more waves of coronavirus, Congress is MIA. They’re on an impromptu recess until at least April 20, with no real way to conduct business, because House and Senate rules demand in-person voting unless each lawmaker agrees to the legislation.

That leaves the White House — which most lawmakers, even Republicans, don’t trust -- in charge, and it’s why critics are decrying congressional leaders for their utter failure of imagination.

“To say that legislators can’t log votes remotely is ridiculous,” former presidential candidate Andrew Yang told VICE News. “It's going to be necessary at some point soon during this crisis as more and more legislators end up self-quarantining, so they should just get the show on the road right now.”

But there's resistance on both sides. In a rare case of bipartisanship from Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to even entertain the idea of remote voting.

“Let’s not waste time on something that is not going to happen,” the speaker reiterated on a call with reporters when she was asked about remote voting this week. And McConnell agreed. “We’ll not be doing that. There are a number of different ways to avoid getting too many people together,” he said two weeks ago. Reached by VICE News this week, his office stood by his statement.

Sure, lawmakers did manage to pass a sweeping and historic $2 trillion economic package — their third such “stimulus” — but they’re now debating a fourth. The difference is that the first three were debated for all to see, while the fourth is being hashed out on Twitter and cable, in local newspapers, and in private communications completely out of public view.

Congress is unique among federal institutions in this regard; the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the White House, and almost every federal agency can easily conduct secure video conference calls.

“The government relies on it for many, many things. I don't see why Congress should be saying that we can't do it when we’re already doing it,” Yang said.

Indeed, more than 70 members of Congress have all but begged leaders in their respective chambers to rapidly adjust Congress’ arcane, in-person voting system so they can address this perpetually evolving pandemic while quarantined in their homes miles away from the Capitol.

But Pelosi and McConnell have repeatedly raised concerns over potential hacks, expected court challenges to remote voting, and even unforeseen technological glitches. In March, one of Pelosi’s handpicked generals compiled a 21-page memo detailing party leaders’ arguments against remote voting.

"Remote voting raises serious concerns for the potential for another person accessing a member's system and voting on their behalf, including 'deepfakes' in a video-based system," reads a report by the House Rules Committee released last week. Its chair, Rep. Jim McGivern (D-Mass.), wasn’t available for an interview.

The doomsday fears from older lawmakers aren’t shared by the new generation of lawmakers in Washington, especially those with technology knowhow or those who represent places like Silicon Valley.

“Give me a break,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) texted VICE News. “Talk to a few folks in Silicon Valley, and they can figure it out. What’s sad is that Apple and Google have better emergency-preparedness plans than the United States Congress. We need to get our act together."

States like Pennsylvania (whose state Senate just overhauled its longstanding rules to allow members to vote from home) and Utah (which recently OK’d remote hearings for ill lawmakers) are already leading the way.

Let the tech wizards set up the new remote systems while the political leaders in Washington stick to combating the pandemic, says Yang.

“I know dozens of people who could help them do that very, very quickly,” he said. “When they say there are technical obstacles, it’s ridiculous. We all know that. There are millions of Americans and thousands of firms doing very similar things every single day.”

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Cover: Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., walks in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 27, 2020. The House is working to pass a massive $2.2 trillion economic rescue bill that would cap Congress' tumultuous effort to rush the relief to a nation battered by the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)