With routines upset, Congress improvises

After weeks of displaced offices, disrupted routines, and 64 tons of unread constituent mail, lawmakers are prospecting ways to make sure that the business of Congress continues - no matter what.

They've tried Fort Congress. Since Sept. 11, more concrete barriers have gone up around the Capitol. More blocked off streets and massive planters, whose real function is to shield the Congress, not to pot pansies . More German shepherds. Many fewer tourists and lobbyists.

But the barriers didn't keep out anthrax, which opened a new front nearly two weeks ago in the battle to keep government functioning. Mail was suspended and offices closed. By last Friday, four of the six congressional office buildings had reopened, but discovery of new anthrax exposure on the House side raises new questions about how secure those buildings will be.

The security crisis is opening a flood of speculation on how to cope in the future. Last week, some Democrats called for developing plans for a virtual Congress, including a website to substitute for floor debates and votes. Committee business could be conducted online. Members could log on from remote locations to vote, and the public could follow the debates on the Internet just as they watch them on C-SPAN.

"This scheme may not be as far-fetched as it might initially seem," concludes an article in New Dem Daily, an online publication of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "Indeed, long before September 11, there were proposals circulating for electronic voting and web-enabled debates and committee meetings, so that members could spend less time in Washington and more time in their states and districts....We can overcome terrorists by our brainpower and our technology, as well as by our courage."

How to authenticate that it is a member of Congress online would require more than a simple password. The New Democrats suggest using biometrics - such as retinal scans or electronic fingerprinting - or requiring members to "go to the nearest state capitol or city hall to use special kiosks there."

Finding places to work

Meanwhile, those still working in the unvirtual Congress are putting improvisation to the test. Cut off from their offices, files, and phones last week, senators set up makeshift offices in their "hideaways" - locations which, until last week, have been among few well-kept secrets in Washington. Senators too junior to have a secret basement or attic office made do in corners of public rooms.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan looks for her staff in the northwest corner of a Senate reception room, adjacent to the Senate floor. It beats the table in the basement she had been assigned, along with four other junior senators. "There was no phone hooked up down there, and our cellphones don't work in the basement," she says.

New York's junior senator (another of the 30 senators without hideaways) does a lot of her cellphoning under the Senate portico, next to a pillar. "It's become my regular place to phone. I can see the front of the Supreme Court building. It's really beautiful," says Sen. Hillary Clinton.

On the House side, members were quickly reassigned office space in the sprawling General Accounting Office. Some 1,200 GAO employees were cleared out of the second and fifth floors, where 435 members of the House (and 3 staff members) were reassigned space. The 300-square-foot offices came equipped with office supplies, including a laptop, a printer, and a phone.

Still, many members preferred to skip the 10-block shuttle-bus ride and work out of their Capitol Hill apartments. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D) of New York set up an office in the back of a Dodge minivan parked outside the Capitol. "The cellphone reception is better out here," says Howard Diamond, his senior legislative assistant.

After Sept. 11, all House members were issued Blackberries - wireless, handheld e-mail devices - which have helped their leadership stay in touch with a large, dispersed membership. (In those first uneasy hours after the Pentagon was hit, land lines and cellphones were overwhelmed. Only the Blackberried few could communicate with family and staff.)

Proceeding despite the frenzy

But in an institution as rule-bound as the US Congress, the breakdown of normal order has been disorienting. Old protocols didn't suffice for managing the first biological attack on the Capitol. Often, rumors and television reports substituted for official notification of changes in timing or venue.

"We're getting all our direction over here from CNN. It looks like they're running the Capitol," said a senior Senate staffer, who learned on television that his office in the Hart Building would be closed.

Still, the work of the Congress is getting done, members insist. Last week, Congress approved a sweeping antiterrorist package. This week, lawmakers focus on a stimulus package, airline security, and end-of-year appropriations.

But some policy experts chide lawmakers for not taking up the ultimate survival question: what to do if large numbers of House members were killed in a terrorist attack. The Constitution allows for senators to be appointed by governors when the need arises, but representatives can only be replaced by elections.

"It makes no sense at all that the House leaders have not found an appropriate response to deal with the worst-case scenario," says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute here. "If the worst case were to happen, we're left drifting or with martial law."

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