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What Congress must do to protect itself

Updated 2:00 PM ET, Wed January 13, 2021

Editor's Note: Taylor J. Swift (@Taylor_J_Swift) helps write the First Branch Forecast weekly newsletter that focuses on Congress and is a policy advisor for Demand Progress, a nonprofit group advocating for civil liberties, civil rights, and government reform. David B. Cohen (@POTUSProf) is a professor of political science and interim director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron. Robert Alexander (@onuprof) is a professor of political science and founding director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University. He is also the author of "Representation and the Electoral College." The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) - Just as Covid-19 began wreaking havoc on the United States' public health, economy and election administration, we made the case that Congress should adopt procedures to carry on the business of the country through remote means if necessary.

Doing so has become even more important and has taken on greater urgency due to the recent events at the Capitol.

There have always been risks of working at the Capitol. Over the decades, the grounds regularly hosted protests, and bomb threats have been commonplace. But the siege by a pro-Trump mob on January 6 was unprecedented, preventing members of Congress from completing their constitutional duties and forcing lawmakers to flee for their safety while rioters roamed throughout the Capitol building.

The events were jarring to witness and could have been much worse. Federal investigators are looking into whether there was a plan to hold people hostage, including members of Congress like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- whose name was being chanted by the mob -- or the vice president, since some yelled "Hang Mike Pence."

As harrowing as the attack was, it is clear that the threat to Congress of physical attack is not over. Twitter announced on January 8 that the platform had permanently suspended President Donald Trump's account, citing risk of further incitement of violence. The FBI has received information that other attacks may occur in the coming days or weeks, both at the US Capitol and state capitols.

Despite clear warning signs, key bodies in charge of security failed to properly prepare for the possibility. This catastrophic failure in securing the Capitol complex has also telegraphed to the world -- including America's enemiesjus -- the stark reality that it remains unprepared for additional, more attacks. The warning lights about continuity have been flashing brightly for almost two decades. Simply put, there are no formal laws or procedures in place for Congress to hold remote deliberations or otherwise conduct its business if it becomes impossible for members to gather face-to-face in the Capitol or at another location.

After the 9/11 attacks, Congress created a Continuity of Government Commission which issued three reports on the continuity of Congress, presidential succession, and the continuity of the Supreme Court.

The commission held several hearings and reported out a constitutional amendment that sought to temporarily appoint members in both chambers of Congress to ensure quorum during an emergency.

Unfortunately, none of the commission's recommendations were adopted, and Congress moved forward without any formal contingency plans.

It is clear that the legislative branch of government is ill-equipped to continue its operations --mmuch less its role as a co-equal branch -- if lawmakers are unable to physically assemble. We witnessed this less than a year ago as Congress, and most of the country, shut down in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The failure of Congress to address this challenge since 9/11 has made our democracy more vulnerable and less resilient.

Notably, the risks associated with Covid-19 were compounded by the riot. Three members of Congress have tested positive after sheltering with fellow members -- several of whom refused to wear masks --during the siege. This has endangered their health and subsequently forced them into quarantine protocols.

As soon as possible, both chambers must pass resolutions that allow for a "virtual Congress," an idea that has been pushed by organizations and various lawmakers to deal with Covid-19. Last year, the House successfully implemented proxy voting, which enables members designated as proxies to cast votes on behalf of other members. While this was a step in the right direction, it still requires members who are casting votes to be physically present on the House floor. The Senate failed to alter its floor voting procedures but did alter the rules so committees could meet remotely.

Both chambers proved that changing the rules for voting and committee deliberations are not only possible, but effective. A fully remote voting system would ensure the safety and security of lawmakers, staffers, and Capitol Hill workers in the event of a national security or public health threat. A House Administration Committee staff report already provided guidelines on the feasibility of implementing secure remote voting in the chamber.

Congress has the capacity to guarantee continuity; it must simply choose to act. Covid-19 demonstrated the necessity to consider alternate ways for Congress to conduct its business, and the attack on the Capitol made clear how important it is that plans for a virtual Congress be implemented as soon as possible. Should the Capitol be the target of another terrorist attack -- foreign or domestic -- ensuring that Congress can continue to convene is a national security imperative. The country can ill-afford to wait any longer.


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