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Argument

It’s Time for Congress to Go Remote

America’s politicians are older than ever—and dangerously vulnerable to the coronavirus as a result.

An empty Statuary Hall is seen at the US Capitol in  Washington, DC on March 19, 2020.
An empty Statuary Hall is seen at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on March 19, 2020. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

The average age of the U.S. House of Representatives is just shy of 58 years old. In the Senate, it’s nearly 63 years.

Despite the rise of rare figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just 29 when she took office, the United States has far and away one of the oldest legislatures in the Western world. The average age of members in the lower houses of the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and Canada is around 50. It’s several years lower in the Scandinavian countries.

The positively geriatric nature of America’s legislature rivals that of Japan, a country where the median age is about a decade older. Even America’s likely presidential candidates this year are older than ever—between them, Joe Biden and Donald Trump will have spent 151 years on earth by Election Day, an all-time record.

It’s even worse when you consider that an influx of relatively young members has skewed the median. Around 15 percent of the House and fully a quarter of the Senate are age 70 or older.

Much has been written about how the disparity between the age of elected officials and their constituents is bad for democracy. But in a time of coronavirus pandemic, when a fast-moving virus presents a particularly acute risk for those over 70, it is positively dangerous.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that roughly a third of all observed cases of COVID-19 in seniors resulted in hospitalization. The case fatality rate for those older than 65 is estimated at between 3 and 11 percent from the data so far. Dip into the 85-plus range—which includes four senators—and it’s 10 to 27 percent. Hospitalization rates also soar with age.

Add onto that that the virus is killing twice as many men as women, and the picture looks even uglier. There are roughly three times as many men as women in both the House and the Senate.

Two members of Congress have already tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The Iranian parliament, where 8 percent of members have been infected, shows how fast the virus can spread through close-knit networks. Several important Iranian leaders in a country where theocracy and gerontocracy are closely mixed have already died.

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Efforts to recruit a more diverse slate of congressional candidates have been underway for some time. That process happens over the course of many elections.

But the United States can do something right now to limit the risk to its older legislatures: Stop bringing members into both chambers—physically, at least.

That doesn’t mean the work of government should stop. On the contrary, both houses are needed to authorize essential spending and approve requests for emergency authority by the president—or, alternatively, to reject or curtain attempts to exercise federal power.

Reps. Katie Porter, Eric Swalwell, and Van Taylor are proposing a solution: Let members vote remotely.

In a letter, on behalf of some 50 members of Congress, the three elected representatives call out the House leadership to change the rules so as to “permit remote voting for Members of Congress during this national public health emergency.”

The argument is pretty compelling. Remote and rural representatives, they argue, will be most disadvantaged as travel routes are disrupted. Forcing all the members and their staff to walk the halls of the Capitol isn’t helping, either, they argue: “Voting in the traditional method is not social distancing.”

“We in Congress are asking businesses, schools, and local governments to execute strong plans to ensure continuity of operations,” they write. “Congress should be no exception”

The Intercept has reported that multiple state legislatures are already exploring e-voting or digital sittings of their houses during the pandemic.

Holding remote sessions of Congress isn’t entirely straightforward. The Washington Post put together a primer on the constitutional requirements for quorum that would need to be addressed for something like this to go ahead.

Rather than explore the idea, though, leadership in both chambers rejected it pretty quickly. “We’ll not be doing that,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was similarly cool to the idea.

McConnell is 78 years old. Pelosi is 79.

Other countries have already adopted e-voting with some ease.

The final NATO vote to allow North Macedonia’s accession was approved because Spanish senators met digitally, with all but five of the country’s 264 senators voting to approve the former Yugoslav republic’s bid to join the military alliance.

The European Parliament is following suit.

“It will be the first plenary that will use the distance voting system. In the face of this emergency, we must use all the means we have available,” David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, said in a statement.

America’s aged political leaders are particularly at risk during this pandemic. They better start acting like it.

Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.

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