Sen. Rob Portman: During coronavirus pandemic, Congress should work remotely to prevent disease spread

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Seemingly overnight, the coronavirus pandemic has changed our way of life. Many businesses have shuttered – some permanently – and millions of Americans are teleworking for the first time.

Churches and schools are closed, and while some states have begun to reopen their economies, the majority of Americans continue to live by strict social distancing guidelines.

Within the last five weeks, a record 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment, and some believe we are approaching the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression, despite hitting a 50-year low only a few months ago.

ALEXANDER WARNS CONVENING CONGRESS 'CREATES A HIGHLY EFFICIENT VIRUS-SPREADING MACHINE' WITHOUT PROPER TESTING

In the midst of this crisis, the voice of the American people must be heard as the federal government works to respond to this unprecedented challenge. Congress provides that voice. In a world where it’s no longer safe to be within six feet of each other, Congress must adapt.

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On April 30, I convened the first-ever virtual Senate hearing as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and other subcommittee members joined the videoconference roundtable.

Over the course of the two-hour session, we heard from three expert witnesses in Senate procedure, government technology and congressional modernization to get a better understanding of the benefits and challenges of Congress working remotely.

The video of the roundtable is on our subcommittee website so the public can watch, just as if we met in our hearing room.

Our goal was twofold: first, to have an informed discussion on the feasibility of implementing remote work protocols in Congress, including a bipartisan remote voting resolution I introduced; and second, to demonstrate that a remote hearing was not only feasible, but could be as successful as a traditional in-person hearing.

The experiment was a success on both fronts. Senators and witnesses easily conversed from the safety of homes and offices, with one witnesses even testifying from her pick-up truck cab in a rural area in New Mexico.

In times of crisis, congressional proceedings no longer need to be confined to a cramped hearing room in the Capitol building. In fact, several committees are now considering holding virtual hearings this week, because even though the Senate is in session, social distancing guidelines favor a remote process.

In addition, the roundtable produced a substantive discussion about the feasibility of Congress implementing a remote voting and participation system during times of extraordinary national crisis. My resolution would allow the majority and minority leaders of the Senate to jointly agree to a 30-day period of remote voting, with a full Senate vote required to extend the order.

In conjunction with our roundtable, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report examining the underlying legal framework and technical feasibility for remote voting.

The Constitution and Supreme Court precedent make clear that the Senate may set its own rules for how it operates, and creating a temporary remote voting system is no exception.

Likewise, off-the-shelf technologies are available to create and secure a system through authentication and encryption.

The Senate would not be the first legislative body to work remotely. Several states have decided to continue legislative business in the past month, including allowing members to vote remotely.

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The European Union has implemented a remote voting system for its legislative body, while the Parliament of the United Kingdom is beginning to experiment with holding virtual proceedings.

This is also not the first time an extraordinary crisis has required us to think about unprecedented actions to ensure the continuity of Congress.

Some may remember that under the threat of a nuclear attack during the Cold War, the federal government built a secure bunker for Congress to convene should Washington be attacked.

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And in 2001, after 9/11, there was concern about another terrorist attack. Then, as now, we must plan for every contingency so that Congress can continue to operate and continue to represent all Americans, especially when our country goes through challenging times.

Our roundtable showed that a remotely working Congress, while not perfect, can allow us to work safely while we defeat the coronavirus.

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