Daniel Hemel: Congress Should Change Rules to Enable Meeting Remotely

Congress can’t meet remotely. The coronavirus might mean it has to.

A growing number of members of Congress — including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the incoming White House chief of staff — have put themselves under “self-quarantine” after they came into contact with a coronavirus-infected individual at a conference of conservative activists last month. They’re unlikely to be the last lawmakers exposed to the virus as it spreads across the country: Members of Congress, like the rest of us, are vulnerable to an illness that knows no party lines. The House and Senate need to plan for an outbreak that sidelines a significant number of lawmakers for days or weeks.

Unfortunately, Congress is woefully unprepared for continuing its work during a pandemic. The Constitution requires both houses to establish a quorum — defined as a majority of members — to conduct business. Any lawmaker can issue a quorum call in her chamber, and if a majority is not present, then the chamber cannot enact any legislation until that threshold is again met.

Under House and Senate rules, only members who are present in person count toward a quorum. So if at least half of either chamber is under quarantine or otherwise unable to attend a session, the legislative process could come to a grinding halt right in the middle of a crisis.

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