Dems propose creating e-Congress

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 to intriguing.

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 another."

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.

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