The pandemic showed that Congress needs to overhaul its operations. Here’s our plan to make it work better for the American people.

US House Chaplain Pat Conroy coronavirus mask
US House Chaplain Pat Conroy wears a face mask and face shield as he walks to the House floor on Monday, July 20, 2020
  • Congress' operations were thrown into disarray by the pandemic, showing just how much the legislative branch needs to modernize.
  • As part of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, we're working on ideas to help Congress work more efficiently and securely.
  • Derek Kilmer is the US Representative for Washington's 6th Congressional District. Tom Graves is the US Representative for Georgia's 14th Congressional District
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Millions of families, workers, students, and business owners have faced health and economic uncertainty since the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading throughout the country.  

 The uncertainty of the pandemic has also thrown the operations of Congress into flux. The crisis has strained not only our economy and our health infrastructure, but the institutions that are integral to our democracy.  Like the rest of America, Congress was — and still is — adapting to this uncertain environment and  identifying ways to operate effectively in a crisis.

The pandemic exposed gaps in Congress' operations

As the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, we have been guided by one goal: make Congress work better for the American people.

Since the Select Committee was created in January 2019, we've crafted and passed nearly 60 recommendations to improve operations throughout the legislative branch. But the pandemic - and the swift transition to remote work - highlighted gaps in our operations.

Casework, policy making and constituent communication remained the top priority for Members and staff, but within a matter of days, the Capitol complex was closed to visitors, tours were canceled, and offices shifted to telework. There was no House-wide plan in place for remote work, recommended technology or equipment, or guidelines for continuing communication with constituents after losing access to the physical resources of the House. 

Making Congress work better

Thankfully, we have ideas on how to make Congress more effective for the American people and apply the lessons learned during this crisis.

To prevent the kind of  operational uncertainty caused by the pandemic in the future, we recommended that Congress create a continuity of operations plan (COOP), a framework with minimum safety requirements for each office to meet. Offices could customize this plan to fit the needs of their district and staff.  Providing offices with much-needed guidance could help ensure the safety of staff and members, as well as continuity of office operations on behalf of constituents.

We knew that Congress wasn't the only legislative body facing these challenges, so we examined best practices from legislatures around the world. Virtual meeting platforms were used for legislative business in countries like Argentina, the United Kingdom, Ecuador, and Spain.

In March, there was only one video chat and virtual meetings platform approved for House offices to use. Thanks to the swift response of House Information Resources (HIR) – effectively the IT department for the House – other platforms were quickly approved for congressional use. But it still took months to get these licenses approved and delivered to staff. 

That is why we recommended that the House prioritize the approval of platforms that staff need for effective telework and allow each individual staff member to have licensed access to the technology. 

We also recommended that staff have the most up-to-date technology and equipment to continue working effectively. If we want Congress to continue operating at its best for those we represent, staff need access to the same technologies that our constituents are using. 

Our number one job in Congress is to represent our constituents. During a crisis, seniors still need answers to their questions about their Medicare benefits, passports need to be processed for essential travel, and business owners need help navigating critical economic lifelines. 

In fact, in a recent report by the Congressional Management Foundation, 63% of staff respondents said constituent communication had increased during the pandemic. Millions of Americans each year share their most personal information with our offices and federal agencies, and congressional offices need to be able to respond safely and securely.

To help streamline casework requests and provide constituents better access to federal agencies and resources, the House should implement a secure document management system, and provide digital forms and templates for public access. 

Especially as our workforce has moved to home networks and offices, and members are connecting to home WiFi networks without the same federal network protection, cyber vigilance is key. Last year we recommended that Members of Congress receive cybersecurity training to ensure their work – along with their constituents' information — remains secure. Members should also be given telework security training at the beginning of each Congress. 

As our nation continues to grapple with the pandemic, there will undoubtedly be many more lessons to learn. We recommended that a bicameral, bipartisan task force produce a comprehensive report outlining these lessons learned and changes Congress should make in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report should provide a bipartisan view of how Congress can better serve the American people in the face of future continuity crises.

Though our committee is slated to end with the 116th Congress, we will continue identifying opportunities for legislative branch reform in the coming months. We have a responsibility to deliver for our constituents, especially in a crisis, and the Select Committee will continue to recommend ways Congress can work better for all Americans. 

Derek Kilmer is the US Representative for Washington's 6th Congressional District and is Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Tom Graves is the US Representative for Georgia's 14th Congressional District and is Vice Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. 

You can learn more at about the Select Committee here. To share your ideas on making Congress work better, email: [email protected]

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