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Will Congress continue using tech tools forced by COVID-19?

Congress was dragooned into the 21st century by the coronavirus, but lawmakers are still reluctant to embrace technology

Congress, like corporate America and the rest of the world, was forced to adopt remote working technologies and other digital collaborative tools a year ago as the coronavirus shut down the global economy. 

Now, as the pace of vaccination across the country picks up and a return to pre-pandemic normal appears increasingly possible, lawmakers and reform advocates are debating whether Congress should keep using the new tech tools even after the pandemic ends. 

Some lawmakers say that remote video hearings, proxy voting, digital submission of bills and amendments helped members of Congress continue doing their work. But others bemoan “Zoom fatigue” and say the absence of physical interactions with fellow lawmakers may have worsened partisanship. 

Unlike companies that already had experience with employees working remotely, Congress had to quickly adapt. House Democrats last May 15 adopted rules allowing remote voting and committee meetings after members fled the capital fearing COVID-19. The Senate, then led by Republicans, allowed video hearings but not proxy voting.

Advocates of changes say Congress should take the best lessons from the forced experiment brought on by COVID-19 and embrace new ways of meeting and passing laws. 

“The May 15 rule changes flipped Congress and dragged it into the 21st century, from three-ring binders to Zoom,” said Lorelei Kelly, head of the Resilient Democracy Coalition, based at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University. 

Eighth graders around the country were doing video sessions long before Congress got there, said Kelly, whose September 2019 report “Modernizing Congress: Bringing Democracy into the 21st Century” called for Congress to embrace new technologies that would allow greater participation from citizens in lawmaking. 

The utility of technological tools that Congress was forced to adopt because of the pandemic was only reinforced by the Jan. 6 insurrection, which showed that the work of Congress can be disrupted and lawmakers ought to have tech options to continue functioning, Kelly said. 

“I don’t want there to be a lower point for Congress to help itself,” Kelly said.  It’s a “continuity of government challenge at this point.” 

Digital all the time

In the past year, the House held 600 hearings and as many as 6,500 meetings on Webex, a video platform owned by Cisco, according to data from the company. The Senate has held more than 1,400 hearings and meetings combined, Cisco said. 

While the issue of virtual hearings didn’t become contentious, the switch to proxy voting, allowing a House member away from Washington to let a colleague present on the House floor vote on his or her behalf, became embroiled in a lawsuit brought by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who called Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s adoption of the rule an “unconstitutional power grab.” 

Virtual hearings allowed a more diverse group of witnesses to appear before Congress, most lawmakers and advocates of updating congressional processes said. 

“The fact that I can have testimony in front of a committee from someone who’s in another time zone, without requiring them to come to Washington, D.C., really opens up a world of opportunity,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., chairman of the House Select Committee on Modernization. “To the extent that hearings are about access to information that can direct the work of a committee, there is more access to more information if you’re not solely dependent on who can be in a specific room on a specific time on a specific day.” 

Kilmer’s panel, formed in January 2019, had issued a set of 97 recommendations before the pandemic struck, and several of them focused on infusing congressional processes with technological tools, streamlining schedules and providing greater transparency to lawmakers’ work. 

Over in the Senate, Missouri Republican Roy Blunt said remote hearings “have been incredibly successful” and predicted that they may be “one of the things that will last,” even after the pandemic-era restrictions are lifted. But Connecticut Democrat Christopher S. Murphy said he had Zoom fatigue, finding it difficult to question witnesses through remote hearings, and he preferred in-person questioning.   

Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, also a member of the House modernization panel, sees remote hearings and tech-enabled legislating as both “a blessing and a curse.” 

Virtual hearings “have sometimes provided more troubles and longer hearings and longer markups than what would have been happening pre-pandemic,” Davis said. “So I don’t think technology has universally made Congress more nimble.”

While virtual hearings may be here to stay, “the curse of all of this technology and technological use during the pandemic is it’s taken away the personalization of being a member of Congress,” Davis said. 

Disagreements about bills and amendments between lawmakers who were in the same committee room or walking the halls of Congress could be resolved by saying, “Let’s work together and get things done,” Davis said. But “technology and the lack of personalization has led to a much higher partisan temperature out here.” 

More partisanship

Former Democratic House member Brian Baird of Washington said partisanship was at an all-time high long before the pandemic struck and it’s unlikely that technologies and virtual hearings could worsen the divide between the two parties. 

As pandemic restrictions unfolded across the country last March and April, but before Congress switched to virtual hearings, Baird chaired a mock hearing that included former Republican Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, retired Gen. David Petraeus, and members of the Spanish and British governments. The hearing was intended to be a trial run to help current members of Congress see that remote technology could work. 

Baird is now a consultant to Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan private foundation that promotes transparency in government. 

The mock hearings held by Baird and others were a “huge step forward in addressing fears” among members, who had “to get out of their comfort zone” of meeting only in person, said Marci Harris, the CEO and co-founder of POPVOX, a digital platform that advocates for modernizing Congress. 

Baird and other advocates say that unlike corporate America, the art of politics sometimes requires being in the same room with other lawmakers to discuss an amendment, or change one’s mind about a vote after seeing the tally on the House floor.  

“The thing you miss the most is the ability to go to a colleague on the floor, sit down next to them and talk to them,” Baird said. “But you can do that technologically.”

Beyond the process of drafting and passing bills, remote working also has helped bridge the gap between staff in members’ district offices and in Washington, Harris said. “District offices were more integrated, and district folks had a good read now on what’s happening in Washington.” 

Overseas legislatures

While Congress is debating which innovations to keep, other democratic countries have embraced tech tools in far-reaching ways to bridge the gap between their citizens and lawmakers, said Beth Simone Noveck, director of the Governance Lab at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

Taiwan, for example, has used technology to engage with hundreds of thousands of citizens to “help with refining the definition of a problem around which legislation is needed, and that has led to crafting 26 pieces of national legislation,” Noveck said. 

Germany last year crowdsourced suggestions from interest groups for its policy on artificial intelligence, and the U.K. and Brazil have used tech platforms to seek citizen feedback on defining the legislative agenda and testing how a law is working, Noveck said. 

The lab’s CrowdLaw project offers a suite of technologies that Congress and other legislative bodies can use to engage with citizens in seeking input for legislation and improving oversight, Noveck said. 

While lawmakers and their staff who have seen the tech tools in use are interested, archaic congressional rules about how the legislative process should work had slowed adoption of technologies, Noveck said — until COVID-19 struck. 

“COVID did a lot to really begin to grease the wheels in terms of creating openness to thinking about new ways of doing things,” Noveck said.     

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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