On Friday, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to muster a quorum to pass the $2 trillion coronavirus rescue package. Members of a chamber whose average age is around 50 — with more than 70 lawmakers over 70 — boarded planes and entered the House chamber at a moment when medical officials are warning older people not to travel or gather at all.
The Kentucky Republican's power play is fueling a growing cry in Congress for the means to function from afar in the event of a pandemic or other emergency. "We will resign this body to legislative irrelevance if we cannot accomplish this quickly," said Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., who was one of the first to sign onto a letter to the House Rules Committee last week in which dozens of lawmakers called for remote voting. "It's a total disgrace that we haven't already."
But what would it really take to get it done?
Longtime tech experts who also have experience both with Capitol Hill and state legislatures told Protocol that many of the tools already exist. For instance, the House has already approved a half-dozen videoconferencing tools for official use, including Skype and Zoom. Microsoft, its Azure cloud services and its Teams platform have been approved by the House to offer secure communications, meetings and collaboration. There's even a new legislative drafting tool offered by Markup.law that's been approved for use in the House's secure app store. Amazon, IBM, Google and others also offer many of the same services.
Some of the money is there as well — a lot more than there was last week, in fact. In the bill that passed Friday is some $35 million for the Senate and Congress to "to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally." One million of that is specifically earmarked for the Senate Sergeant at Arms and the Doorkeeper of the Senate, the offices that would be responsible for implementing a rules change offered by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to permit remote voting.
The rest of the money — $9 million in the Senate and $25 million in the House — is largely going to help get lawmakers and staffers set up in remote locations, a source familiar with the provisions said.
"Congress has been getting ready to have people work from home, to have people work in district offices," in case they have to shelter in place or self-quarantine, the source said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Quickly implementing remote voting would be a singular challenge, however. Tech experts who spoke to Protocol had all sorts of suggestions about how to carry it out, from having members use the individual voting cards they employ on the House floor to more common two-step authentication or even pre-planned duress codes to use if they were compromised.
But one House staffer familiar with the issue cautioned that they don't necessarily understand all of the important considerations, such as the need for transparency and public accountability, the need to maintain public confidence, and even the ability of lawmakers to learn to use unfamiliar tech during a crisis that could affect communication systems. Plus, in the House alone, there are 15 different rules that would have to be considered or changed to make it happen.
"Some tech companies have off-the-shelf products that they claim could be used to implement remote voting," the staffer said. "But they're only focused on the logistics. There are major connectivity concerns surrounding a change like this, not to mention constitutional questions."
And, then, of course, there's the can't-do attitude of many members, who still use flip phones and fax machines.
Durbin and Portman's rules-change proposal received a chilly reception from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, who said simply, "We'll not be doing that."
And the House Rules Committee responded to the letter from lawmakers pressing for remote voting with a detailed memo that essentially concluded it was not practical in any near-term way because of the host of rules and security issues.
"Remote voting raises serious concerns for the potential for another person accessing a member's system and voting on their behalf, including 'deepfakes' in a video-based system," the report says, noting that in normal votes, a member walks past a guard and uses a closed system. It also notes that there are ways to address such scenarios, and that the executive branch has ways for officials to work securely in the field, including hardened sites that Congress could replicate. But that would take time and development.
Rose and his fellow proponents say it's too important not to figure it out.
"I don't care. Those rules could go screw themselves," he said. "There's nothing unconstitutional about it. We gotta get this done, OK?," adding that coronavirus is going to require much more legislative action in coming weeks.
"There are military commanders who reach each other through secure communications across the world," Rose said. "Don't tell me in the 21st century, in 2020, that we can't do this. Come on."
Additional reporting by Andrea Peterson