As you may have heard, there is a virus going around and as a consequence Congress, and everything else, is shut down. Some (such as @danielschuman) have advocated Congress establish a process for remote voting in the event that members are unable to return to Washington in the near future. One idea is to allow members to deliberate and vote by online video conference.
In a staff report on the subject, the House Rules Committee briefly considered the constitutionality of a remote voting procedure, observing that it would be a “novel question for a court and there is no guarantee of a favorable ruling affirming its constitutionality.” Majority Staff Report Examining Voting Options During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Mar. 23, 2020). To my knowledge there has been no in depth analysis of this question so I am posting a few thoughts.
The relevant constitutional provisions begin with the requirement for Congress annually to assemble and remain assembled until both houses agree to end the session. The Constitution provides that “Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January.” U.S. Const., amend. XX, § 2; see also id., art. I, § 4, cl. 2. The term “assemble” (according to Johnson’s Dictionary) means “to bring together in one place” or “to meet together.”
Further, Article I provides that “[n]either House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn . . . to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.” U.S. const., art. I, § 5, cl. 4. Thus each house must normally sit in the same “place” as the other while Congress is in “session.”
Although the Constitution does not expressly define the “place” at which both houses normally sit, longstanding interpretation and practice establishes it to be the seat of government. See 1 Deschler’s Precedents, ch. 1, § 4. Since November 17, 1800, Congress has assembled and sat in the District of Columbia, which it had designated as the permanent seat of government. Id.; see also U.S. const., art. I, § 8, cl. 17 (authorizing Congress to acquire a District to “become the Seat of the Government of the United States”). As long as each house continues to sit within the seat of government, it does not need the permission of the other body to meet in a different physical location. See 1 Deschler’s Precedents, ch. 1, § 4 (“a simple House resolution suffices to adjourn the House to meet in another structure at the seat of government”); see also id., ch. 1, § 4.1; House Rule I (12) (d) (“The Speaker may convene the House in a place at the seat of government other than the Hall of the House if, in the opinion of the Speaker, the public interest shall warrant it.”).
The Constitution does not have any express requirements for where or how members must vote, but it provides that “a Majority of each [house] shall constitute a Quorum to do Business” and “a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members.” U.S. const., art. I, § 5, cl. 1. This empowers each house to require the attendance of absent members at a specific location for purposes of “doing business” (e.g., voting). See House Rule III (1) (“Every Member shall be present within the Hall of the House during its sittings, unless excused or necessarily prevented, and shall vote on each question put, unless having a direct personal or pecuniary interest in the event of such question.”).
As a general rule, the question of a quorum is an internal matter for each house and does not concern the other. However, at the commencement of a congressional session “Congress is not ‘assembled’ until a quorum is present in both Houses, and each House has been notified of the quorum in the other.” 1 Deschler’s Precedents, ch. 1, § 2. Furthermore, while each house can adjourn from day to day, for the duration of the congressional session neither may adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other. U.S. const., art. I, § 5, cl. 4. This has given rise to the practice of each house conducting “pro forma sessions” (performed by a single member who conducts a brief ceremonial session in the House/Senate chamber) every three days when Congress is effectively in recess.
One final provision of note is the president’s authority on “extraordinary Occasions” to “convene both Houses or either of them.” U.S. const., art. II, § 3. The authority to “convene” (defined by Johnson as “to call together; to assemble”) empowers the president to require the assembly of either or both houses at the seat of government as at the commencement of an ordinary congressional session.
What do these various provisions mean for remote voting? My tentative thinking is that nothing in the Constitution prevents either house from determining that a quorum exists when, for example, a majority of members are gathered on the Capitol grounds, rather than in the House or Senate chamber. Similarly, if either house wanted to allow members to vote from their offices, rather than on the floor, it is hard to see what provision would be violated. So long as the house is assembled at the seat of government and there is a reasonable method for determining the existence of a quorum if its absence is suggested, such a procedure appears to violate no constitutional prohibition.
True, the longstanding tradition is for members to deliberate and vote in a single room (with some exceptions, such as proxy voting), but it is hard to see why the quorum clause would be read to prohibit a majority from doing business while they are acting in concert (say while connected by videoconference) at the seat of government, rather than independently voting in the same room at different times. Thus, for example, if during the pandemic either house wanted to keep its members physically separated in one or more structures in the District of Columbia, they should be able to debate and vote electronically. Members would retain the ability to physically congregate if they chose, to access the chamber, and, with the agreement of a sufficient number, to commence an in-person session.
It gets dicier if members (or at least a majority of members) are not physically located in the District of Columbia. One problem is that the house has arguably adjourned to “another place,” though this concern could be resolved by obtaining the consent of the other body. A more difficult issue is that the house may not be “assembled” or “convened” at all because it has not come together in any particular place. This may seem like a technicality in the context of virtual meetings, but I am not (entirely) sure that it is. Not having at least a majority of the body present at the seat of government, with the option of congregating personally, arguably changes the nature of legislative deliberations in a way that violates the spirit, as well as the letter, of Article I.
There is a possible workaround, however. If members vote to approve a particular measure by videoconference, this could be treated not as final passage , but as an interim step in the legislative process (sort of like the House Committee of the Whole). Final passage would occur at the pro forma session, when the measure would be deemed to be passed without objection. The downside of this procedure is that any member could show up and object, but that is also what ensures the process does not become a permanent virtual Congress.
I have not considered here the likelihood that courts would intervene if these procedures were challenged (presumably by someone injured as a consequence of legislation passed pursuant to the new process). Even assuming a constitutionally defective process, it is likely that the courts would show their customary deference to Congress in these sorts of procedural matters. I assume, however, that members of Congress wish to adhere as closely as possible to the letter and spirit of the Constitution regardless of judicial intervention.