Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
One reason Congress isn't remote
Rep. Cori Bush, the eviction moratorium, and the enduring power of showing up
We’re seeing some new subscribers to Slow Build, which is great, some of whom might be unfamiliar with your host here, Nancy Scola, which is also great. I’ll do a proper introduction soon. In the meantime, I’m a journalist and writer living and working in Washington D.C. — that’s right, proud home of the oak-mite bite — and there’s a bit more on me here.
Reader mailbag: On Friday we talked with long-time head of global policy development Matt Perault about Facebook. Yaël Eisenstat, who once served as the global head of elections integrity for political advertising for the company, objected to our discussion of the idea that former tech employees who turn critical of their old employers former tech company can be motivated by profit or a hunger to raise their profile.
Framing it that way, wrote Eisenstat on Twitter in the context of her own experiences, is dismissive of “how hard the decision to speak publicly was.” It’s important feedback.
A note on Slow Build’s mission: We’re here to push and probe on tech’s biggest questions, to report and tell good stories — to give us space to think and fodder to think with, not to predetermine conclusions or, shudder, confirm our biases. We aim to come at from every angle. Here, for example, is an interview with Popular Information’s Judd Legum on his work holding Facebook’s feet to the fire and the limits he’s finding to that approach.
Of course, all journalists do have biases, because we’re generally human. I’m no exception, but here’s one of mine: I’m deeply allergic to people dictating what I’m supposed to think. And I don’t want to do it to anyone else.
ONE REASON CONGRESS HASN’T GONE TOTALLY REMOTE:
Back at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, millennia ago, there was a lot of discussion of why Congress as an institution was balking at working remotely or otherwise going ‘virtual’ to the degree that it could. The answer at the time turned out to be a little bit technological and a whole lot political. Working away from Capitol Hill would shift the complex balances of power that drive Congress, experts generally agreed.
What those experts largely agreed they didn’t know, though, was how it would shift those balances of power. Would, for example, working remotely create a vacuum in D.C. that would put more authority in the hands of leadership in the House or Senate? Or would it weaken leadership because there are fewer members to buttonhole, to pull an LBJ on, if everyone’s holed up back in their districts? Good question! Nobody knew.
Now these many months later, we have a few bits of evidence to start answering the question, at least in the House, and at least at the Democratic side of the aisle.
Physical presence, it turns out, still carries a lot of weight. And that seems especially true when it comes to rank-and-file members. Witness what just happened with Rep. Cori Bush, the freshperson Democrat from Missouri who spent five nights sleeping on the steps of the Capitol to protest the lapsing of the federal eviction moratorium.
Tweeted Bush at the start of her sleep-out:
“Many of my Democratic colleagues chose to go on vacation early today rather than staying to vote to keep people in their homes. I’ll be sleeping outside the Capitol tonight. We’ve still got work to do.”
Bush’s putting of her actual self out there helped give Speaker Nancy Pelosi leverage to put pressure on a reluctant President Joe Biden to put pressure on the CDC to extend the moratorium — which it did late Tuesday, at least temporarily and in high-transmission counties.
Facing complaints from landlords that their property was being effectively seized, the Supreme Court had in June suggested that any extension of the moratorium had to come from Congress. And it did. Just not through the path the court meant.
Still, the situation’s super complicated.
Rank-and-file members of Congress also feel yanked around by having to be in Washington whenever they’re told to be by leadership — especially when, the thinking goes, leadership generally sits in safe seats that don’t require the same degree of district-tending new members might and can often afford to jet back and forth between ‘home’ and Washington at a moment’s notice. Not having to worry about a shifting congressional schedule becomes its own kind of privilege.
Adding some consistency to congressional schedules, and thus shifting a bit of power back to the masses, is one of the major asks of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
Democratic leadership in the House, at least, has warmed to a third option: letting members participate in floor action via “proxy voting,” or a member assigning her or his vote to a colleague physically present in Washington. Meant early in the pandemic as a way to keep medically vulnerable members safe and lessen the burdens of air travel that was all kinds of messed up, proxy voting, writes Nicholas Fandos in the New York Times, is turning out to be a real perk for rank-and-file:
“Fourteen months after it was approved, with the public health threat in retreat and most members of Congress vaccinated, a growing number of lawmakers are using the practice to attend political events, double down on work back home or simply avoid a long commute to Washington.”
But Fandos hits on an important bit. Pelosi, who at first balked at letting her caucus remote work, is finding that it has its real upsides:
“Perhaps no one has benefited more from the arrangement than Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recently informed lawmakers that proxy voting would be in effect for the remainder of the summer. It has allowed Ms. Pelosi, whose majority is so slim that she can afford to lose no more than four Democrats if every member is present and voting, to all but ensure that absences alone do not cost her pivotal support.”
So as a rank-and-file member, do you want to be back in D.C. as much as possible? It depends to some degree whether you’re prioritizing your work (and, naturally, life) back home or your ability to shape things in Washington. At the moment, they’re largely winging it, and considering one additional factor: keeping your office stay remote, or at least location-flexible, can help attract and keep a more diverse, more experienced staff.
“One senior staffer who works for a Democrat said they have no idea what will happen next,” writes Chris Cioffi in Roll Call, going on to quote Brad Fitch, CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which has long given guidance to the Hill on how best to operate:
“If congressional offices do not offer work flex arrangements to their employees, it is almost guaranteed they’re going to not just lose them to K Street, they’re going to lose them to other congressional offices that are offering it… Members that try to do that are going to face resistance from their employees — maybe not outright rebellion, but certainly a quiet rebellion.”
(All this is one reason for another, recently approved recommendation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress: remote internships.)
That diversity isn’t limited to staff, writes Rep. Raúl Grijalva. The Arizona Democrat is saying in Bloomberg that one thing that deserves to stick around post-pandemic (please, let there be a post-pandemic) is the ability of witnesses in congressional hearings to testify via video, from wherever they might happen to be. “[T]his needs to become the new standard,” says Grijalva.
There are concerns about remote witnessing. There are the inevitable technology challenges and endless rounds of ‘You’re muted. Yep, still muted. Yep. Still.’ And is anyone whispering in Jack Dorsey’s ear? (Question for another day: Do we care if someone is?) But it Grijalva argues that it helps broaden out the pool of people likely to testify to include “people of all backgrounds, not just those who already live near Washington or who are able to fly there on short notice, to have their say before Congress.”
Whether Congress can and should work remotely will shake out more after things pick back up after Labor Day. In the meantime:
By the way, if you’re newly interested in Cori Bush and her path to Congress, you might take in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House.”
Numbers and namaste — Olympic surfing is increasingly being powered by “performance analytics, wave pools and science,” writes Daniela Hernandez in the Wall Street Journal:
“Machine learning algorithms could further shape surfing in years to come, helping to improve wave forecasting, and making inroads into training, injury prevention, and recruitment of top athletes, according to researchers and coaches.”
Hernandez quotes a surfing historian (!) who says that, in a way, this is nothing new: surfing has long maintained an image of utter-laid-backness while relying on boards engineered to within an inch of their lives.
Better call…nah, forget Saul — The self-described “world’s first robot lawyer” startup DoNotPay — tagline: “Fight corporations, beat bureaucracy and sue anyone at the press of a button” — is now valued at $210 million, reports Gillian Tan in the Wall Street Journal. Tan quotes CEO Joshua Browder, who says he started the company after getting a bunch of parking tickets while a student at Stanford:
“We’re trying to be a general counsel for all, similar to the way Intuit is leaned on as a tax adviser. We want to stop people from being ripped off and give them leverage.”
Here’s where you go to see if you can robo-lawyer your issue away.
It’s crypto-structure week: The cryptocurrency world got some of the changes it wanted in the big infrastructure bill, reports Alan Rappeport in the New York Times:
“A last-minute lobbying push by the cryptocurrency industry to change language in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was finalized over the weekend succeeded in scaling back some of the scrutiny that participants in the sector will face from the I.R.S.”
Plus, a Massachusetts couple tells their story of being “harassed by eBay,” new research from Echelon Insights finds “strong bipartisan support for providing Internet to Cubans,” and young female creators are working on getting them and others paid via “a kind of Glassdoor for influencers.”