Bill seeks e-Congress study

Congress is recovering from the anthrax scare, but one side effect lingers -- the idea of an electronic Congress.

Freshman Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) introduced legislation requiring the National Institutes of Standards and Technology to study the feasibility and cost of developing a secure computer system to enable Congress to continue operating without having to come to the Capitol.

"We cannot allow terrorism or even natural disasters to prevent the effective operation of the nation's highest lawmaking body," Langevin said in a statement issued with his bill Dec. 6.

Langevin envisions the creation of a communication system secure enough to permit elected representatives to vote from remote locations "if circumstances require the Congress to convene without being at a single location." The system would also enable secure communications among members of Congress.

From a technical perspective, such a system appears feasible. The Democratic Leadership Council issued a similar proposal in October, stating that "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."

Like Langevin, the council worried that a chemical or biological attack could leave the U.S. Capitol and congressional office buildings uninhabitable for a protracted period.

Technology can overcome geography, but an electronic Congress is sure to raise constitutional questions and challenge political tradition.

The Constitution requires Congress to "assemble" and "convene," and tradition requires that to vote, House and Senate members must be present in their respective chambers.

"It is clear that you cannot vote remotely right now," said James Snider, a scholar at the New America Foundation, a think tank that focuses on government and technology. "But I believe that is a matter of protocol." It could change if members of Congress agree to permit remote voting, he said.

And although the Constitution requires "convening in a place, that place could be cyberspace," Snider said. The framers of the Constitution surely never envisioned such a "place," he said.

If the Constitution and congressional rules do not block an electronic Congress, traditional politics might.

"There is a premium placed on face-to-face communications," Snider said. Some members fear that conducting business online rather than in person will cause "a harmful decline in civility" and discourage deliberation, he said.

House and Senate members also fear that conducting business online would make it possible to document congressional activity far more than is possible today, where decisions are made, votes are gathered and deals are struck in private meetings.

"There was substantial opposition last year" when the idea of an electronic Congress was first discussed. "But that was before Sept. 11," when terrorist attacks highlighted the vulnerability of the Congress convened on Capitol Hill, Snider said.

Langevin's legislation has been referred to a House committee and is unlikely to receive further attention this year.

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