Lawmakers debate 'e-Congress'

With discussion sounding more like a science fiction movie than a congressional hearing, lawmakers May 1 explored the idea of creating a virtual Congress that could operate in the event of a crippling terrorist attack or disaster.

"Our common sense dictates that we prepare for the unthinkable," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Administration Committee, which conducted the hearing.

When hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, the Capitol and its office buildings were evacuated because officials feared another plane was heading in their direction. A fourth hijacked plane, which instead crashed in Pennsylvania, may well have been.

A month later, the Hart Office Building on Capitol Hill was evacuated after an anthrax attack. Lawmakers and staff members had to find makeshift offices while the building was decontaminated.

And now lawmakers say the problems are not over, and it is essential to prepare for congressional continuity in the event of another attack.

The Ensuring Congressional Security and Continuity Act, sponsored by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), envisions making it possible to keep the government operating by using the Internet and satellite technology to create an "e-Congress."

Langevin's bill, introduced in December 2001, calls for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct a feasibility study of a solution that would enable members of Congress to log on to a system with secure biometric technology from anywhere in the world.

"The most important thing is for this plan to establish a two-way backup communications system," Langevin said. However, several congressional experts said that creating a virtual environment would be illegal because the Constitution declares that Congress must assemble once a year.

Other experts cited technological problems, saying that it would be impossible to authenticate a member of Congress' identity on the Internet and that the importance of the face-to-face negotiating that occurs during a legislative session would be lost.

"I'm worried about the symbolism," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I want Congress reconvened as soon as possible" after a disaster.

Ornstein said he would stop short of endorsing an e-Congress because it was not the intention of the framers who wrote the Constitution.

"No matter how advanced the technology, there is no substitute for the face-to-face conversations and informal interactions...that are critical to genuine institutional and individual deliberation," Ornstein said.

Nonetheless, the panel used a videoconference to show how remote technology, one component of a contingency plan, could work.

With his picture beamed behind the panel, Stephen Frantzich, a U.S. Naval Academy professor, participated in the hearing from Prague, Czech Republic. He told the panel, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should necessarily do it."

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