How are committees supposed to function as the country grapples with coronavirus?
© Greg Nash

Abraham Lincoln liked to pose a riddle to his audiences: “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have?  Audiences would answer in unison “five.” “No,” Lincoln replied, “the horse still has four legs. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.”

The House Rules Committee has reportedly advised committees they may not hold hearings without at least two members physically present to meet the quorum requirement under House rules. But, it suggested, committees could convene hearing-like sessions if called something else, e.g., a “briefing,” “roundtable,” or “panel.”

In this case a tail could look and act like a leg without actually being one. The main difference is the non-hearing could not be considered part of the official, formal proceedings of a committee under House rules. Nevertheless, it would serve the important purpose of gathering useful information on which the committee could take later action.

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This may sound like semantic horsing-around, but it certainly beats the inertia now enshrouding Congress. Moreover, it is important to retain some semblance of committee activity through teleconferencing during the current crisis to perpetuate member-to-member connections and interactions and to develop the vital deliberative groundwork on which the larger body can base its legislative decisions.

But beyond such faux hearings, how can a committee be expected to act without the requisite one-third quorum of members to mark-up bills, and a majority quorum for reporting bills? After all, the quorum rules imply the actual presence of members. The answer, extending the Rules Committee’s advice, is to call a committee’s meeting (or mark-up) something else, say, a “legislative mock-up,” or an “advisory bill drafting session.”

I am reminded that when Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAt indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates Peterson faces fight of his career in deep-red Minnesota district MORE (R-Wis.) became Speaker, he promised to make members more than just “voting machines” by engaging their full participation in the legislative process, both in committees and the on floor. Of course, the promise did not hold.

Today, ironically, many members are pleading with their leaders to allow remote voting from their districts. The Rules Committee’s staff report of March 23 weighed the alternatives of remote electronic voting versus remote proxy voting and determined the former more complex and risky, with the latter more feasible and desirable.

Yet proxy voting, that is delegating a member’s vote to leadership to cast on his or her behalf, relegates members to an even lesser status than being their own voting machine. Proxies turn control over outcomes wholly to the leadership – transforming the concept of members’ remote voting control to leaderships’ total vote control.

While members and leaders wrangle, haggle and finagle over remote floor voting options, committees sit absently in their respective corners waiting to be recognized and re-energized. Members must seek ways to re-engage since committees have been, and will continue to be, the well-spring for sound policy making and oversight.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.