Dems propose creating e-Congress
- By William Matthews
- Oct 24, 2001
After an anthrax scare shut down the House of Representatives for five days
and closed congressional offices possibly longer, the idea of convening
Congress on the Internet instead of on Capitol Hill is turning from impossible
The Democratic Leadership Council proposed creating "an electronic Congress"
in which members could hold hearings, debate and conduct votes online.
"A Web site could easily be built that would facilitate virtually all
of the business normally conducted on the floors of the House and Senate,
or in committees," the DLC said in a proposal published in its online newsletter,
the "New Dem Daily" (www.ndol.org).
An electronic Congress could enable the legislative branch of government
to keep operating even if future attacks with biological, chemical or nuclear
weapons made it unsafe or impractical to have all 535 House and Senate members
meet together, the DLC said.
The possibility that terrorism or an act of war could prevent Congress
from meeting is real enough that President Bush last week asked lawmakers
to give him 30 days of spending authority so he could keep government agencies
running at least temporarily.
Budgets for 2002 have not yet passed, although the fiscal year began
Oct. 1, and agencies are operating on temporary spending authority. Rather
than turn its power of the purse over to the president, Congress extended
the temporary funding until Oct. 31.
But with an electronic Congress, "in a national emergency, if the Capitol
itself is in danger or is actually attacked, members could log on from wherever
they are" and conduct legislative business, the DLC said.
A Web site could be set up as a read-only site for the public, while
elected members could use biometric identification such as thumbprint or
iris scans to log in and debate, mark up legislation and cast votes.
That may sound complicated to the tradition-bound or techno-phobic legislators,
but it's not, said James Snider, a government and technology policy specialist
at the New America Foundation.
The real problem would be persuading members of Congress to change the
way they are accustomed to doing business.
Snider said members react "with a sense of horror."
They fear that permitting members to vote without coming to the House
or Senate floor would eliminate the opportunity to meet and discuss matters
face to face. "It would harm collegiality," Snider said he was told. "Going
to the floor to vote is one of the few times left when members talk to one
But in an emergency such as an attack on Capitol Hill, the way to best
safeguard Congress would be to have its members dispersed, Snider said.
The anthrax attacks may prompt lawmakers to take another look at electronic
legislating, he said.