[Air-l] In the event of catastrophe: Legislating through the Internet

Jennifer Stromer-Galley jstromer at asc.upenn.edu
Tue Oct 23 11:50:11 PDT 2001

Some of you might be interested in what the Democrats are proposing the
nation do if Congress were forced to flee for a prolonged period of time
from the Capitol.


Annenberg School for Communication
University of Pennsylvania
jstromer at asc.upenn.edu

Pithy news and commentary from the DLC.
[ http://www.ndol.org ]


Legislating By Any Means Necessary

The anthrax attack on Senator Daschle's office, and the brief
shutdown of Congress to allow biohazard teams to check out
the Capitol and the members' office buildings, have led to some
quiet but serious talk in Washington about what to do if future
attacks make regular Congressional deliberations impractical
or unsafe. (The American Enterprise Institute went a step
further with a ghoulish panel discussion entitled "What If
Congress Was Obliterated?" about the constitutional
implications of a full-scale terrorist attack on the Capitol.)

Believe it or not, there's precedent for Congressional action in
physical emergencies. During the Revolutionary War, as the
British army advanced on Philadelphia, the Continental Congress
was forced to scramble and run for the hills in order to evade
capture. But members of Congress agreed before their
evacuation on a place to reconvene and carry on our fledgling
nation's business -- most notably, to continue handling the purse
strings of government during the prosecution of the war. (During
the War of 1812, of course, the British actually burned the Capitol
and the White House, but withdrew so quickly that the operations
of government were not significantly interrupted.)

No one is expecting this kind of contingency, but additional
interruptions of Congressional sessions are entirely possible.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House has been
prodding Congress to give the President spending authority to
keep the government operating for as much as 30 days at a time
if lawmakers can't convene and the necessary appropriations for
cabinet departments expire. ("Even before the anthrax scare," the
Journal noted in its Oct. 22 report, "pressures generated by the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks played havoc with the year-end
congressional schedule. Anti-terrorism and airport-security bills
have consumed time and created new obstacles to action on
appropriations and other bills pending at the time of the disaster.")

The pros and cons of the White House's idea aside, the specter
of an enemy aiming to disrupt or destroy the Capitol points to the
need for Congress to have back-up plans for convening and
carrying on with the nation's business. There are obviously
several state capitols near Washington that could theoretically
provide temporary facilities for the U.S. Congress in a pinch, but
modern information technology could also allow for another
scenario: an electronic Congress.

Here's how it could work:

* A website 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 -- from debates, to mark-ups to votes.

* The site could just as easily be built to be administered through
the Internet, so physical proximity to the box where it's actually
running would be irrelevant. In a national emergency, if the Capitol
itself is in danger or is actually attacked, members could log on
from wherever they are.

* The means of authenticating a member of Congress would likely
need to be several cuts above a simple password -- possibly
involving bio-metrics, or human verification -- so the best system
might require members spread around the country to go the
nearest state capitol or city hall to use special kiosks there.

* Once online, just as in the offline world, staff from the offices of
the respective chambers' majority leaders would have administrative
access to control the agenda, and other members could log on to
enter arguments into the record and vote.

* The site could be open to the public on a read-only basis, so
citizens could watch their representatives much as they can now
on C-SPAN.

This scheme may not be as not as far-fetched as it might initially
seem. Congress is already a generation behind much of the private
sector in using information technologies to conduct business in the
absence of physical meetings. Indeed, long before September 11,
there were proposals circulating for electronic voting and web-
enabled debates and committee meetings so that members could
spend less time in Washington and more time in their states and

We admire the dedication of Congressional leaders in believing they
should set an example for the country by returning to normal
business as quickly as possible after the anthrax attack. But we
can overcome terrorists by our brainpower and our technology as
well as by our courage. At a minimum, Congress may want to
consider technological means for conducting some of the nation's
legislative business when members can't physically convene in
Washington, as potentially a good thing in and of itself. At the
same time, they could create a contingency plan for keeping
Congress running, even if the Capitol is shut down.

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