Get the latest market trends in your inbox

Stay on top of the latest market trends and economic insights with the Axios Markets newsletter. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Minneapolis-St. Paul

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa-St. Petersburg news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa-St. Petersburg

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic is creating cracks in the federal government's long-held opposition to conducting business online.

The big picture: Quarantines and social distancing are challenging the way legislators, judges and policymakers are used to operating — though some remain hesitant to upend centuries of tradition and rules.

What's happening: Federal officials are grappling with how to function remotely, with many looking to technological solutions.

  • The Supreme Court is postponing most of its docket of upcoming cases but will hear some via phone conference in May. Many lower federal courts already started conducting remote hearings in recent weeks, in some cases using video conferencing, though that shift has stirred some complications.
  • Federal agencies are seeking alternatives to what are normally mandatory in-person meetings. The Federal Communications Commission, for one, is holding its monthly meeting by phone Thursday, with plans to stream the audio on the agency's website.
  • In Congress, the House is considering options for working remotely.

Where it stands: As the pandemic crisis has propelled a cascade of emergency funding bills, the legislative branch arguably has the most urgent need to find alternatives to in-person meetings.

  • The Constitution provides no barriers to Congress operating remotely, but each chamber would have to alter its rules to allow for remote hearings or voting.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently told MSNBC there are “challenges” to remotely conducting legislative business such as votes. “It’s not as easy as you would think,” she said, citing national security concerns around, for instance, using Zoom to meet.
  • And, following GOP objections, Pelosi has eased off an immediate plan to permit voting by proxy — a low-tech solution in which a small number of lawmakers could gather in Washington to vote on behalf of others. Instead, the House is forming a bipartisan task force to review lawmakers' options.
  • Republican Rep. Tom Cole, ranking member of the House Rules Committee, told Axios, "If you buy the argument— and I do — that members don't spend enough time working together as it is, all these sorts of things will make it harder to build personal relationships and the types of associations that lead to both bipartisanship and good legislation."

The other side: Supporters of remote operations say Congress shouldn't let tradition get in the way of doing more work virtually.

  • "What Congress does is meet and confer and discuss and take action," said Deborah Pearlstein, a constitutional law professor and co-director of the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy at Cardozo Law School. "And those things are exactly the kinds of functions that can be carried out remotely. Congress has a particular responsibility to set an example to lead, to demonstrate what is responsible and effective public behavior in this circumstance."
  • Similar arguments have been made for a more formal, broad push to virtualize federal court cases, especially at the Supreme Court level.
  • "It took a pandemic to get the Supreme Court to allow arguments over the telephone — that's a rather significant event for such a small step," said Jonathan Turley, Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School. "In terms of the order of magnitude, it's chilling to think that you need a pandemic to get the court to allow telephonic arguments. That would suggest we would need an apocalypse to allow video taping."

Be smart: 230-year-old institutions don't change quickly, especially ones that rely upon precedent for much of their work.

  • Changes could create openings for lawsuits. Connectivity issues could thwart communications at critical moments. And lawmakers would need a well-tested system for conducting mark-ups and hearings.

The bottom line: "I think that there's reluctance to go down the path of something that's so dramatically different than has existed since 1787," said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law. "But this is a pandemic, and we have technology today that didn't exist, say, during the Spanish Flu."

Go deeper

Kim Hart, author of Cities
Jul 30, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Mayors face off with Trump over use of federal law enforcement

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The escalating war of words between President Trump and Democratic big-city mayors — brought it to a head by confrontations in Portland and Seattle — is a preview of what's to come in the months leading up to November.

The big picture: Trump is using Democratic mayors as the foils for his law-and-order reelection message, while they've called his deployment of federal agents in their cities "a step short of martial law" and heightened their criticism of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

33 mins ago - Health

Standardized testing becomes another pandemic victim

Photo: Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post via Getty

National standardized reading and math tests have been pushed from next year to 2022, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: There’s mounting national evidence that students are suffering major setbacks this year, with a surge in the number of failing grades.

57 mins ago - World

European countries extend lockdowns

A medical worker takes a COVID-19 throat swab sample at the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. Photo by Maja Hitij via Getty

Recent spikes in COVID-19 infections across Europe have led authorities to extend restrictions ahead of the holiday season.

Why it matters: "Relaxing too fast and too much is a risk for a third wave after Christmas," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.