Planning for the worst

The federal government has plans to preserve our telecommunications, health, energy and transportation systems from terrorist attacks. Why not our legislative and electoral systems? We need procedures to allow legislators to conduct business without being in the Capitol or physically next to one other.

Congress has long banned the use of technology in its deliberations. It has banned mobile phones and laptops from its floors, and it has rebuked attempts to allow members to vote remotely. Critics contend that remote voting will hurt democratic deliberation because valuable face-to-face interaction occurs among members when they walk to the floor and wait to vote. They also contend that face-to-face interaction enhances collegiality among members. But those arguments should be irrelevant in a national emergency.

What if the Capitol had to be evacuated for a month because of a credible threat of chemical, biological or conventional attack against it? Shouldn't there be an exception for national emergencies? If the answer is yes, there should be a full and open debate about democratic procedures appropriate for such a situation.

It's possible that some security agency (probably the U.S. Capitol Police or the Secret Service) has a secret plan for "continuity of legislative government in case of emergency." If so, it hasn't been a matter of open congressional discussion. If Congress can hold endless hearings about a smorgasbord of security threats, it can surely devote some time to its own legislative procedures.

Congress shouldn't stop with its own legislative government. It also needs to help the 50 states and the more than 80,000 local legislatures, including school boards and town councils, plan for long-term evacuations of public buildings and city centers.

America's legislatures, including their component committees, hold more than 20,000 legally recognized public meetings a day. The half-million elected officials, mostly volunteers, who constitute these legislatures, should be able to fulfill their public duties with minimal disruptions to their lives and families.

Finally, Congress should think about its proposals to reform the nation's voting systems in light of the postponed primaries in New York City and abysmal turnouts in cities such as Annapolis, Md., on the day of the terrorist attacks. This highlights one upside of remote voting. One can imagine many terrorist threats where the public wouldn't risk going outside to polling places but would be willing to vote from home.

One legislative strategy would be to tie voting system reform to legislative reform. Both involve upgrading and enhancing the security of the country's obsolete democratic infrastructure. Congress should fund pilot projects to develop an electronic manual of parliamentary procedure for federal, state and local legislatures. The alternative is to give terrorists too much power, including the power to destroy America's democratic institutions at a time when they would be most needed.

Snider is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation.


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