by Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House
NOTE: The following originally appeared in Roll Call as a "Guest Observer" column on December 20, 2001. It is reprinted here with permission. Copyright by Roll Call.
The events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax scare have reignited the argument over using advances in information and communications technologies, such as video conferencing and the Internet, to establish a “virtual Congress” by which Members and supporting staff could continue to carry on the normal business of Congress, including committee meetings and voting on legislation.
These calls for “electronic democracy,” though they are well-intentioned and include a number of valid points, most often fail to take into account the importance of the key component of the legislative process upon which Congress is based and functions — namely, the personal, face-to-face interactions of deliberation, debate and consensus building.
The founding fathers purposefully conceived Congress as a slow-moving, inefficient institution. Congress is not meant to react to the public emotions and demands of the moment. Indeed, by its very design, it serves to check the popular passions and develop legislation through a deliberative, consensus-building process. This process relies in large part on regular interaction between and among Members. As Joseph Bessette in “The Mild Voice of Reason” put it, “Every deliberative process involves three essential elements: information, arguments, and persuasion.”
Technology has been wonderfully applied to enhance the sharing of information and can even be used at a basic level to allow for argument and persuasion. But for all its possibilities, no technology exists that can fully reproduce the engagement and emotion that occurs during the face-to-face, interpersonal bargaining and sharing of ideas and passions that is at the core of the deliberative process in Congress. This is a decisive concern that any advocate of a “virtual Congress” must seriously consider.
Far from being years behind the private sector in the use of information technologies, as argued by some, Congress has, in fact, made a remarkable transformation into the information age. For an institution as large and decentralized as Congress, this transformation has been nothing short of profound. In terms of using technology as part of the actual deliberative, legislation-making process, however, Congress has continued to take a purposely slow, wait-and-see approach.
Congress could not and should not be at the cutting edge of technology application. The fact that technology can be used for various applications certainly doesn’t mean that it should. That corporate boards may permit meetings or voting via video conference, or that college students may take classes over the Internet, does not mean that these same technologies can be translated into use by Congress — a far different entity in structure, purpose and importance to the very foundation of our form of governance.
As an organization, Congress functions in large part because of the regular and personal interactions among Members as they work to build consensus on issues ranging from procedural matters to the budget and appropriations legislation. This structure varies widely from the military and corporate arenas where action below is taken based on orders from above. In these environments technology is easily applied as an effective method of communication, information sharing, and command and control. In Congress, however, the loss of real, person-to-person interaction among Members, with all its involved emotions that cannot be reproduced via technology, no matter the clarity of the speakerphone or the resolution of the video display, would hit at the very heart of the institution and threaten its very ability to function as a body — the very opposite of what proponents of a “virtual Congress” would argue.
One recent procedural change in the House of Representatives provides an excellent example of the importance and value of personal relationships among Members. Over the past few sessions of Congress, the House has formalized the practice of “rolling votes,” where following debate on a piece of legislation, the actual vote on it is delayed. At a later time, a series of back-to-back votes are held on it and similarly “rolled” items.
Although on its face this practice would seem to weaken the legislative process by divorcing the vote on a bill from floor debate on the item, in reality it serves to provide Members with large amounts of time together on the floor to discuss matters, bargain on issues and build consensus. The practice has been widely praised by Members for providing the “quality time” needed to help develop personal relationships with their colleagues.
Again, it is these relationships that are at the core of the consensus-building and negotiating process that is Congress. No Web page or video conferencing tool can reproduce this vital, human side of the legislative process. While current realities force upon us the need for an overall examination of the federal government’s continuity preparations in case of an overwhelming and debilitating attack on any branch of government, the option of convening a “virtual Congress” via the Internet or other technologies should remain far down on the list of possibilities. Technology can serve to help Congress and the public communicate more effectively and to improve the internal efficiency of certain Congressional operations, but its impact on the deliberative nature of the legislative process may in fact be detrimental.
The personal and intimate relationships and the physical and emotional interactions that serve as the vital fuel driving consensus building in Congress have been key ingredients to the more than 200-year success of our great American experiment. Even today, in an era when calls decrying the partisanship and ideological strife of Washington are heard daily, these ingredients has proved critical as relationships spanning ideological, geographical and other divides abound. No technology exists that can even come close to replicating the environment that has allowed these close, personal bonds to develop in Congress. Given even the present circumstances and dangers with which we live, any proposed “virtual Congress” will require a great deal of debugging and further examination before it can go to market.