Editorial: Lawmakers, join the 21st century

The Detroit News

Our country is in crisis, and we need our elected leaders to be present, both statewide and nationally. That includes lawmakers, who’ve not had the kind of input they should, given virus-related concerns about in-person contact.

Yet just as many Americans are harnessing technology to stay connected with coworkers and customers, members of Congress and the Michigan Legislature should also find ways to keep meeting — and voting. 

Congress is expected to vote Thursday to pass additional coronavirus aid, largely focused on helping small businesses stay afloat through the Paycheck Protection Program. But while lawmakers have sent an unprecedented amount of aid to Americans and U.S. companies, they’ve been slow to keep up with the financial demands. 

A man walks through an empty U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday. Congress has shut the Capitol and all Senate and House office buildings to the public until April in reaction to the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

As an example, the $350 billion in business aid included in the CARES Act, the $2 trillion relief package passed in late March, ran out in just two weeks

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More flexibility could no doubt help, along with preserving the health of members of Congress. When Congress meets today, members should approve a resolution to pursue remote voting proposed by Ohio Republican Rob Portman and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.

As Dan McLaughlin, a senior writer with National Review Online, put it: “The business of the nation requires Congress to remain on duty during a crisis such as this one. Changing the rules to ensure the functioning of the national legislature is the responsible thing to do.”

The same holds true in Michigan. Our Legislature, as one of three separate branches of government, has a vital role to play. Yet lawmakers have been mostly absent.

They met April 7 to vote briefly on extending Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency declaration until the end of April. And they don’t plan to meet again until April 30. 

Republican legislative leaders, especially in recent weeks, have started pushing back against Whitmer’s stay-home order, which they believe went too far in limiting businesses and basic freedoms. 

As House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, wrote to Whitmer over the weekend: “Your expansion of the stay-at-home order, without adopting many of our recommendations, has made Michigan a national outlier with its COVID-19 response. This decision has put additional people out of work and hindered the basic freedoms and liberties of more citizens than the data justifies.”

That’s an important point, and lawmakers should be checking Whitmer’s executive authority in a formal manner. And although she has a lot of leeway under current emergency statutes, the Legislature could step in and rework some of those provisions — regardless of whether Whitmer may veto. 

There’s not a good reason why lawmakers couldn’t meet and vote remotely. The Mackinac Center has looked into this, and found that while it’s standard practice to vote at the Capitol, that’s not specifically laid out in statute or the constitution. Lawmakers may need to meet in person to change their chamber rules and possibly amend the Open Meetings Act, but otherwise there’s nothing stopping them. 

More than 20 other state legislatures are considering different options, given COVID-19.   

Our leaders should embrace technology and work to do what’s best for this state and country.