Graduating from conference calls, House panels livestream committee work

They’re not markups or hearings, but congressional committees are increasingly adopting videoconferencing to show constituents they’re on the job.

Democratic committee leaders aren’t waiting for formal rule changes to move online in the coronavirus-lockdown era.

The House Natural Resources Committee, led by Chairman Raul Grijalva, is sponsoring a series of Facebook livestreamed remote roundtables featuring Democratic members and handpicked witnesses, setting the stage for the lower chamber to follow suit.

“We’re not [Energy and Commerce]. We’re not Ways and Means. We’re not the committees that are intimate in all the discussions that are going on in terms of what a coronavirus package looks like. We’re not in that power slot,” Grijalva told National Journal. “But in our jurisdiction are some really important things, from climate change on down. We felt we had to get that out and make that part of the national conversation.”

The panel kicked off the series two weeks ago with a roundtable on the coronavirus response in Indian country, followed by similar events in recent days on U.S. territories and broader health and economic impacts. Grijalva is planning another livestreamed roundtable May 5 on Trump administration environmental deregulation during the outbreak.

Other committees, particularly those that similarly aren’t part and parcel to the sweeping coronavirus-response packages, are starting to replicate those events. 

The Veterans' Affairs Committee livestreamed an event Tuesday on the virus’s impact on homeless veterans. The Education and Labor Committee is set to hold a virtual forum Friday and may hold two more next week, a committee aide said. The Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday streamed a roundtable via Zoom with the U.S. Conference of Mayors about the impact of coronavirus.

Other committees are still trying to bring their technological know-how up to snuff. Some, like the Small Business Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, are working out how to hold member video briefings, though most have been conducting conference calls, committee aides said.

As the outbreak rages on with total U.S. confirmed cases now well above 1 million, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is spearheading a multifaceted effort to facilitate remote committee work as the reality sinks in that lawmakers will likely need to rely on virtual events even after the lower chamber returns to Capitol Hill the second week in May.

“I have asked our Committee Chairs to begin holding virtual forums to further test videoconferencing technologies, which I hope can be used for hearings and markups in the near future,” Hoyer said in a statement. “I thank the many committees ... that are already holding remote briefings and forums and demonstrating Congress can continue its work remotely using these technologies.”

But the new formats aren’t without controversy. House Republicans shot down a plan last week to allow remote voting on the floor and in committees, saying Congress should instead return. Now, Democrats are aiming to push a resolution to enable remote committee work and, more controversially, remote voting, past their Republican counterparts. The resolution would allow committee chairs to remotely convene traditional hearings.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects a vote on the resolution when lawmakers return to vote on the next coronavirus aid bill.

Democratic leaders have sought to deflect criticism from rank-and-file members on both sides that they’re being sidelined on legislative work during the coronavirus quarantine. During her weekly press conference, Pelosi backed committees’ plans to adopt more-robust conferencing guidelines.

“Small groups can come back, and maybe they have a full committee meeting or maybe they have a virtual, or a hybrid, but work will be done,” Pelosi said, adding that committees have had about 60 meetings, virtually or otherwise, over the extended recess.

Currently, committee chairs need to comply with in-person rules on quorums and motions. The House Administration Committee released guidance on preferred videoconference technologies, including Cisco WebEx, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams.

The more-informal events, at the Natural Resources Committee and elsewhere, are getting blowback from the minority. Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop is criticizing the livestreamed roundtables as partisan grandstanding.

“You are seemingly mimicking hearings to include inviting executive branch witnesses while prohibiting Republican participation,” Bishop said Thursday in a letter to Grijalva. “Instead of adopting a more collaborative process during this time, you appear to use the circumstances of a crisis to circumvent transparency and avoid opposing viewpoints. This is an institutional disservice to the House and degrades the committee.”

Homeland Security Committee ranking member Mike Rogers blasted Chairman Bennie Thompson over a slew of scheduled events Thursday night and Friday on Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency strategies for the coronavirus, as well as a virtual conversation with former Obama administration Ebola point-person Ron Klain.

Meanwhile, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has broadly opposed remote meetings and proxy voting. Speaking to reporters Thursday, McCarthy said he has suggested in talks with Hoyer that committees come back in person—but only those with time-sensitive business, such as Armed Services’s work on the National Defense Authorization Act and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act.

“I don’t see how you negotiate a national defense authorization, from nuclear and others, from the remote technology that we have today,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy pointed to his recent experience with a remote conference in the panel established by Pelosi to work on a bipartisan agreement over proxy voting. McCarthy, who said he considers himself “pretty advanced in technology,” still ran into issues.

“And I put [the conference] onto my phone when the computers wouldn’t work and then my phone—the House system blocked me from my phone being used because it was my private phone,” he said.

A few panels are meeting in person next week.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education will hold a hearing on the COVID-19 response next week, an aide for the full committee said. The full committee is still set to complete its 12 appropriations bills by June.

Majority Whip James Clyburn hopes his special committee to oversee coronavirus aid will meet next week, he told reporters Thursday. Clyburn will be speaking with Democrats over the phone Friday. Republicans have not yet announced members.

The Senate has been slower to dial in to livestreamed committee work, but it will return to Washington next week with at least five in-person hearings in larger spaces than usual to accommodate social distancing.

The Senate Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations did take its own stab at a remote hearing on Thursday, releasing a pre-recorded roundtable between senators and governance experts to consider the importance and nuances of deliberation without Congress physically present.

“Today, our gathering itself is really part of our case,” Chairman Rob Portman, a longtime advocate for remote voting, said in his opening remarks. “This is, as I understand it, the first time we’ve been able to do this … in the Senate. We want to show that it is possible to have a hearing without physically being in a hearing room.”

To be sure, there were technical difficulties. Sen. Josh Hawley called in without a working camera. Lorelei Kelly, who specializes in congressional modernization at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center, broadcast her testimony from the cab of her sister’s 1998 Dodge pickup truck in order to get a strong enough signal in rural New Mexico on a mobile hot spot.

But the roundtable participants emphasized that the discussion was a critical one, recalling the push to prepare the government for continued operations during emergencies after the real and attempted attacks on the Capitol Building in the fall of 2001.

“If we don't change, pandemic or no pandemic, the first branch of government will become increasingly irrelevant,” Kelly said in an interview Wednesday.

By:  Brian Dabbs, Casey Wooten and Zach C. Cohen
Source: National Journal