Coronavirus is forcing governments to conjure up survival skills — not just for their citizens, but for democracy itself.
Faced with unprecedented disruption to the decision-making machinery of government — including travel bans, and social-distancing restrictions on large meetings — officials in capitals worldwide have scrambled to adopt new working methods, including meetings by videoconference, and remote voting by ministers and parliaments.
Many legislatures, including the European Parliament, have already canceled all but the most essential meetings and debates until further notice — an acceptance, however reluctant, of the enormous logistical obstacles they now confront.
But there are also worries of potentially dangerous breakdowns in checks and balances, as well as concerns that authoritarian-minded leaders could exploit public fear over the pandemic to weaken democratic institutions at a time of vulnerability.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is now pushing for legislation that would give him sweeping emergency powers to rule the country by decree for an extended period — prompting criticism from human rights officials.
Political leaders, like everyone else, face personal danger of infection.
But even in capitals where such power-grabs are unlikely, the imposition of states of alarm or emergency — as exist now in many EU countries — has led some officials to conclude that new mechanisms may be needed to safeguard the role of lawmakers, and to preserve democratic scrutiny of the executive authorities.
On Sunday, President of the Italian Senate Elisabetta Casellati issued an extraordinary statement, insisting that the parliament was still in business and calling on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his government to strengthen consultation with the Senate, as well as the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.
In Washington, at least five Republican senators are sidelined because they were infected or exposed to the coronavirus, potentially imperiling passage of emergency legislation to support the U.S. economy, and highlighting the risk of government paralysis as elected officials tasked with responding to the crisis fall ill.
The U.S. has yet to come up with a Plan B to keep the Congress running, even as the Trump administration has sought new powers for the Justice Department to request indefinite detentions without trial during emergencies — highlighting the worries about executive overreach while legislatures struggle to function.
The absence of the five Republican senators has cut the majority control of President Donald Trump's party to just one vote — 48 to 47 — and left them a solid dozen short of the 60 votes needed to overcome various procedural hurdles that must be cleared before legislation like the giant €1.8 trillion stimulus bill can be adopted by a simple majority.
Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, have urged a change to the standing rules to allow senators to vote from outside the chamber during a crisis. But changing the rules itself requires a two-thirds supermajority.
Around the world, other governments are already taking extraordinary steps — some of which could permanently alter how those in power take decisions, hastening the acceptance of new technologies previously regarded as insecure or inappropriate for official business.
Last week, the EU's College of Commissioners held its weekly meeting by teleconference for the first time.
On Wednesday, during an extraordinary session of the Spanish Congress, deputies will be able to vote remotely on two decrees related to labor and agricultural policy as well as on urgent measures to respond to the pandemic and the economic fallout.
And on Thursday, the 27 heads of state and government on the European Council will convene by videoconference, after scrapping their regularly-scheduled summit in Brussels, with the agenda narrowed to focus only on the crisis.
The frantic efforts to keep government functioning reflect two equally vital imperatives — a need for government action, including emergency economic measures, in response to the crisis; and an acute desire to reassure citizens, businesses and financial markets that the authorities are in control — even if they were woefully unprepared for the outbreak.
In some cases, however, officials are discovering that it is far more difficult than expected to set aside long-established rules that mandate in-person meetings or votes, often with a minimum number of participants required for a quorum.
On Friday, EU ambassadors reached a deal on a plan that would suspend formal meetings of the Council of the EU for 30 days, allowing ministers to meet instead by videoconference. EU countries will then take formal decisions using a streamlined "written procedure" — a longstanding mechanism by which national capitals vote remotely on policy proposals.
"It's critical for our business continuity," a senior EU official said. "We cannot just run away and say, 'OK, we'll come back after the crisis.'"
But what was expected to be a swift tweak to the rules, given the crisis, turned into more than two days of debate, which covered the practical limitations of videoconferences — including an inability to provide interpretation into all EU languages — as well as the legal, philosophical and even psychological ramifications of foregoing the in-person negotiations that are a hallmark of the EU decision-making process.
"We are not going from meetings to kind of intergalactic video chats. We still have all the structures, and the written procedure" — Senior ambassador
"These rules of procedure are there not just because we are rule fetishists," the EU official said. "They are there because they are addressing some very real concerns and those concerns are about protecting the rights of member states."
The ambassadors shied away from a more far-reaching change that would have afforded videoconference meetings formal status. The top concerns were practical, and also related to the legal implications of the move. "Because it's about lawmaking, we have to do it right," a senior ambassador said.
A second senior ambassador portrayed the 30-day change as a moderate contingency measure. "We are not going from meetings to kind of intergalactic video chats," the ambassador said. "We still have all the structures, and the written procedure."
EU ambassadors representing the bloc's member countries continue to meet face to face but, to comply with social distancing, the size of delegations has been sharply curtailed. Ambassadors are limited to at most two advisers and sometimes none. Also, meetings are being held in the largest rooms at the Council of the EU to create distance between participants.
At least the EU reached a decision, with capitals officially affirming the new plan on Monday. In Chile last week, an effort to adopt new rules to allow remote voting failed because not enough deputies supported the change.
Across the Western world, parliaments are wrestling with similar questions.
Graziano Delrio, the leader of the Democratic Party in Italy's Chamber of Deputies, has urged that plans be made to allow tele-voting. This week, the parliament is due to hold a hearing by videoconference with Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri, but it's not clear Italian conservatives will ever allow remote voting.A