📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
Parliament modernisation efforts are essential for a more effective institution that delivers better laws, better oversight of the executive branch, and better representation. The legislative digital transformation should be respectful with the legislative institution tradition and internal balance of power, preserving its core values but improving daily processes for the betterment of Members, Public servants, and our societies.
With that said, we’re happy to share with you all the written version of a Q&A between the former Vice President of the Brazilian Senate House, – The Right Honorable Senator Antônio Anastasia, the Chairman of the House Committee on Rules in the US House of Representatives, The Right Honorable Congressman James McGovern and Mark Stodder, the President of Xcential Legislative Technologies.
I’d like you to predict the future. New technologies along with the requirements of a pandemic are inspiring procedural changes in the House of Representatives in the United States, such as remote hearings and proxy voting. Other digital innovations are bringing new tools from members and staff to review legislation, such as comparative prints that let members clearly see changes between drafts of legislation and new software applications that automatically engross amendments into bills and let you see their impact on existing law.
So, what’s next? In the near term, what new technologies or technological innovations would you like to see in the House that would improve the process of lawmaking?
Rep. James McGovern:
We are still expanding some of the programs that compare prints, so that in the near term we want to see these solutions used more. One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is that technology is good, but it’s not perfect yet. There are still some challenges, I mean when we do remote hearings often somebody gets frozen or gets cut out. We’re testing things on the fly during Covid-19, and we’re trying a lot of different things to see what works easily and what requires more attention. We’re not at a point where technology is foolproof, where everything runs smoothly. On our remote voting, we’re doing it remotely by proxy. It’s a very transparent process, there are security and verification issues and other things that we need to consider, but what we’re saying is that I can call in and provide a notification that I want someone to vote a certain way and it has to be announced on the House Floor and then that person can cast my vote. It’s very open-minded, but some of the things such as moving toward a more paperless process, I hope we can continue.
I am personally concerned, as somebody who has great respect for the institution of the House of Representatives, that we will lose something if we move too much to total remoteness in the future. Maybe there should be provisions for people to be able to vote and participate remotely, if they’re ill or if there’s a natural disaster or something that they can’t make it to the Capitol, but I think we have to discuss the pros and cons about moving away from in-person meetings. We also need to be prepared, if we have another pandemic or situation that requires us to not be able to meet in-person. The future is still uncertain and we’re trying a bunch of things out. We have this committee on modernization to review all the things that we’re doing and I think we all have to keep an open mind and we have to be honest about what makes sense and what doesn’t.
Sen. Antonio Anastasia:
Allow me to fully agree with Rep. McGovern’s answer. For what reason? In fact, at the end of his answer, he mentioned he has the same concern as we do: we cannot replace the daily physical presence of parliamentarians in congressional votes. It’s impossible. This could, in my opinion, lead to the extinction of Parliament as we know it. Of course, all technological instruments should be used for cases when it is not possible to meet in-person, but always as an alternative and using technology as an accessory in the main process. Of course, in a vote, as we have here in Brazil, on bureaucratic issues, issues of minor relevance, where there is nor discord, the remote vote can continue. But for issues that have discussions, where we have disagreements, where there is a need to further discussions, a possible agreement, or even to decide for the majority, the physical presence, in fact, is required, and necessary.
I think that we are in an emergency situation, and that’s why we have adopted these mechanisms. In the Brazilian case, contrary to what Rep. McGovern reports, there was no need for proxy voting. Parliamentarians vote remotely and very securely through an App. We just lack guarantees for secret votes. The secret voting mechanism has not yet managed to achieve integrity through the application, but normal votes take place remotely in this emergency situation. I also think we will continue to use these tools in the future, but for topics that do not generate conflict. This is the sentiment today in our Brazilian Senate.
As someone who works in technology, I always have to think about the unintended consequences of innovation and what can happen when new systems come in that we really hadn’t thought about.
I think through this period I agree we need to have a lot of caution about not adopting things permanently, that really we’re just there for convenience because so much can spin out of them. I think we can follow a basic principle that these innovations should be in a democratic government targeting how to make things more transparent, how to make things more accessible to the public and those who are interested in what’s happening in the proceedings on the floor and in the committees and so forth.
I think we will do a lot toward building the kind of confidence we’ll need in our institutions, particularly in these times, certainly in the U.S. of great divisiveness and difficulties, where we have a Capitol that still has barbed wire around it. I think that the more we can have innovations that really focus on how to make government more open the better we’ll be.
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