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Congress by remote control

PH2009122203820.jpg

As we've discussed before, the reason holds and filibusters and cloture calls and all the rest of it is so effective is because the Senate operates amidst a scarcity of time: There's a lot the majority wants to do and not enough time to do it. But this week, the snow is holding up business, giving Republicans a much-needed break from doing it themselves. Which got Annie Lowrey thinking: Do countries with consistently nasty weather allow their legislatures to vote remotely?

The answer in the United States is no -- though it has been proposed before (pdf). The first country I thought of was Estonia, which has the most tech-savvy government on the planet and, I imagine, rather nasty winters. There, you can cast your national electoral ballot from the comfort of your living room sofa, over the Internet. (There are actually a number of countries and localities that allow this.) But, it seems, members of parliament need to be present to give the up or down on legislation.

I only found one government that allows remote legislative voting -- in, of all places, sunny Catalunya, Spain. In that region, which includes Barcelona, local representatives can request permission to send in their vote from home if they need to tend to a sick family member, for instance. No details on whether they also do it if hit with 22 inches of white stuff.

You rather wonder how Canada gets anything done at all. But putting the weather aside, it's a couple types of crazy that we don't let legislators vote remotely when they're ill. In the past few years, we've seen Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy wheeled into the Senate to cast a deciding vote. Why not let the sick deputize their chief of staff to press the button for them? It's enjoyably romantic to imagine that the presence of legislators assures their deep understanding of an issue, but in practice, whether they're being briefed by staff and cajoled by leadership on an issue they don't understand on the telephone or in person doesn't make much difference.

Photo credit: By Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  February 10, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Comments

I think a serious proposal for remote voting might be problematic. Whose going to institute an electronic system, if we went that route? Diebold? Don't get me started on the sheer idiocy of developing voting machines with off the shelf technology, including Windows as the OS. I shake my head every time I think about it. Or go to vote.

What's going to happen the first time a representative says that his staff did not actually vote the way he told them to?

What's the response when Republicans accuse ACORN of getting involved?

And to the point of ill senators--the first time there is a controversial vote, there will be accusations that an ill senator, who voted remotely, actually didn't vote. Instead, there will be accusations that the political hacks hovering around him like vultures made the vote for him. Unconstitutional! Anti-Democratic! ACORN pulled the lever! Blackwater pulled the lever! There was a lobbyist in his hospital room *on the day of the vote*!

And so on. Remote voting sounds simple, but I think there's a hornet's nest under that innocent looking exterior.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 10, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"Why not let the sick deputize their chief of staff to press the button for them?"

Or even better, in the case of Ted Kennedy, allow the departed to press the button from Heaven.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 10, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

"You rather wonder how Canada gets anything done at all."

Y'know, DC has gotten a lot of snow but this would not paralyze most of the Midwest or New England to this degree. DC just doesn't have the capacity to handle emergency snow removal because storms like this are just so rare.

Posted by: NS12345 | February 10, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

On the other hand I am not sure it is a good idea to contemplate a U.S. Senate run by 100 guys in assorted nursing homes taking a break from watching Lets Make a Deal.

I am thinking of 100 heads in jars Futurama style.

The ability to physically reach the Senate Floor seems like a pretty low level proxy for the ability to be physically and mentally engaged with your constituents. Not a perfect test but at least a test.

Posted by: BruceWebb | February 10, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

What NS12345 said. I grew up in a place that got what DC's in the middle of two or three times a winter, every year. As a result, our only municipal service that was particularly robust was snow removal. It's places that rarely that get it that lack the planning and resources to deal with it effectively.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | February 10, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

IIRC, in his last days, Strom Thurmond was more or less the puppet of his staff, even if he was in the chamber to vote.

Committees already allow one member of Congress to vote on behalf of another - proxy votes - so I don't see why it would be so outrageous to allow the same on the floor.

But forget weather: why is it that members of Congress from Hawaii has to travel 5,000 miles to Washington, D. C., in order to ensure that their state has a say in government? Why can't they telework?

Technology has reached the point where they could participate in committee hearings and votes without leaving their local offices, yet instead, they waste time and energy with a half-day of travel from Honolulu to Washington. It's ridiculously primitive.

Posted by: dcamsam | February 10, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

"But putting the weather aside, it's a couple types of crazy that we don't let legislators vote remotely when they're ill"


Why would we let them vote at all. Personally I'm in favor of forcing legislators to prove their mental faculties are in order on an annual basis to make sure they can handle the challenges that they face. The problem with that argument is that we'd have to clear out more than 50% of the Senate and almost that much in the House.

Then again maybe that's a good thing.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 10, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

The problem with Byrd and Kennedy is not that they had to be wheeled into the Senate. It's that they didn't do the honorable thing and step down when they became gravely ill. If the Massachusetts special election had been held early in 2009 because Kennedy stepped down instead of January 2010, Coakley would have won easily and health care reform would have already been signed into law.

Posted by: redwards95 | February 10, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm in agreement with the last two posters. We only have 100 senators, so each seat is enormously important. We have many capable and able folks in this country who could serve. I realize that a fixed retirement age may not be a good thing, but having observed my own elderly relatives slowly lose their abilities to think analytically and make decisions as they age, we should have some minimum standard of mental agility for our senators. How on earth can these folks plow through serious legislation consisting of thousands of pages?

Posted by: Beagle1 | February 10, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, it's funny you should mention about "how Canada gets stuff done". Turns out, PM Harper (Conservative) has prevented Parliament from sitting for two months to prevent it from enacting policies the PM doesn't like. The Republicans wouldn't even have to vote!!

http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/thegaggle/archive/2010/02/09/think-congress-suffers-from-inaction-take-a-look-at-canada.aspx

Posted by: lordshader | February 10, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

"we've seen Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy wheeled into the Senate to cast a deciding vote. Why not let the sick deputize their chief of staff to press the button for them?"

The thought of an incapicitated Robert Byrd must be keeping more than one Democrat up at night.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 10, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

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