Overview:

There's no reason why lawmaking today has to obey the rules of an archaic era. If elected officials embraced technology and did their jobs remotely, government and society would both stand to benefit.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The New York state legislature adjourned last week, after an eleventh-hour flurry of votes to strengthen gun control, protect abortion and voting rights, and fund public housing. It also passed a first-in-the-nation right-to-repair law for personal electronics.

But while many progressive priorities were passed, a few big ones were left out in the cold: especially the Build Public Renewables Act. The BPRA was a crucial climate-change bill that would have directed the New York Power Authority to phase out fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy by 2030.

It passed the New York State Senate, and a majority of the Assembly said they supported it, but the full chamber never voted on it. The legislative session is typically from January to June, meaning the bill has no chance of passage until 2023.

This is a frustrating setback. We have so little time left to save the planet, and we’ve squandered another year of it. But I wonder: Why is fighting climate change held hostage to a legislative calendar? Why can New York only take action during the six months when lawmakers are in Albany?

Why can’t lawmakers work from home?

The American governmental system as it exists now—legislatures only able to act at specific times designated “in session,” quorums that require a certain number of lawmakers to be present in person, and speakers or other officials who decide which bills get a vote when—is badly outdated.

These rules are antiquated remnants of the quill-pen and horseback era, when lawmakers actually had to be in a room together to debate and vote. None of this makes sense anymore.

The last two years showed how many jobs can be done remotely. Before the pandemic, many employers resisted work-from-home policies. But when COVID-19 struck, they had no choice but to allow it, and for most companies, it worked out perfectly well. During 2020, over 40% of the U.S. labor force worked from home, and there was no economic collapse. Their reluctance was nothing but an irrational attachment to the way things had always been done.

Lawmaking is the kind of white-collar knowledge work that’s ripe for disruption. Hearing testimony, debating, negotiating, and casting votes can be done just as well over phone, e-mail or video chat as in person. Why can’t our elected representatives work from home?

These rules are antiquated remnants of the quill-pen and horseback era, when lawmakers actually had to be in a room together to debate and vote.

If lawmaking were done over the internet, it could be streamlined. There’d be no need for complex procedural rules about what does or doesn’t come up for a vote, or how much time people get to speak.

Congress could use a secure, publicly viewable database where any lawmaker could post a bill. If the database used version control software, any lawmaker could propose amendments and modifications to anyone else’s bill, and there’d be a complete record of what changes were made and by whom. Washington, D.C.’s municipal government already does this, using GitHub as the official source of their laws.

Once a bill was proposed, any other lawmaker could invite expert testimony or public comments, or upload their own response, in text or video, to explain their reasons for support or opposition. All these responses would be linked to the text of the bill, like the comments on a news story. Since the internet has unlimited space, there’d be no limitations on the length of a response, and no rules would be needed to keep people from talking over each other. (In fact, it already works this way, sort of: most congressional speeches are made to empty rooms, for the benefit of TV cameras, not to a live audience.)

After a suitable comment period had passed, lawmakers could register votes for or against. If a bill secured a majority of the legislature’s support, it would automatically pass. No special procedural rules would be needed to control this. Voting could continue for as long as the bill exists. If a bill had neither enough votes to pass nor enough votes to ensure its defeat, it would remain in limbo until one of those conditions was met.

The advantages of digital legislating

Lawmaking over the internet isn’t just a good idea because we could ditch the rulebook. It would have real advantages, both for the lawmakers themselves and for the public.

First of all, it would improve their physical safety. Assembling the entire legislature in one chamber makes a tempting target for terrorism, as the January 6 insurrection proved. If Congress was dispersed all over the country, it would be impossible for a treasonous cabal or a single act of violence to disrupt the functioning of the government.

It would also lessen the financial burden on lawmakers. Under the current system, legislators have to have two residences: one in their home district, and one in the capitol where lawmaking takes place. For elected officials who aren’t super-rich, this can be a heavy burden to bear. Many of them live in dilapidated, frat-house-like conditions, or even sleep in their offices.

If lawmakers worked from home, they’d only need one home. They wouldn’t have to endure grueling cross-country commutes, or be apart from their families for weeks at a time. Most importantly, they wouldn’t have to be apart from their constituents. If they spent all their time living in their home district, they’d be closer to the people they’re representing, and could more easily get a sense of the public mood.

It’s even possible that a work-from-home legislature would reduce corruption, because it would be harder for lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers. Actual lobbying, in the sense of presenting arguments and testimony to persuade lawmakers of the merits of a bill, wouldn’t be impeded. But the fancy meals, cocktail parties and other events that constitute bribery by another name would be much tougher with a geographically dispersed legislature.

Last but not least, a digital legislature creates more honest and open government by giving lawmakers no way to dodge up-or-down votes. In the current system, it’s possible for legislators to say they support a bill, but rely on procedural trickery to keep it from coming to a vote, so they never have to act on it.

It’s likely that shenanigans like this sank the BPRA. The same goes for the New York Health Act, a perennial bill that would establish single-payer health care in New York State. Like the BPRA, enough state legislators say they support it for it to pass. But, somehow, it keeps not getting voted on.

An all-digital model would put an end to this tactic and keep legislation from getting bottled up by procedural obstruction. It would also prevent other logjamming strategies, like minority-party legislators refusing to show up so as to deny the majority a quorum. (In one memorably absurd occasion in 2009, New York’s Democratic state legislators were only able to pass bills after a Republican accidentally walked through the chamber.)

If our legislating went all-digital, one thing we would lose is the pomp and circumstance of governing. The Capitol would be a museum, a relic of a past age, or at most, used for inaugurations and other ceremonial gatherings.

Governments, like banks and religions, tend to value tradition and continuity and shun experimentation. That probably explains why so few of them have considered this. However, the potential benefits for both elected officials and citizens are large. If even a few bold lawmaking bodies were willing to give digital legislating a try, they could serve as examples to the rest.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...