House committees move toward virtual hearings for COVID-19 era
House committees are taking steps to make virtual hearings a reality as Congress seeks to work through a coronavirus pandemic that has kept lawmakers from returning to the Capitol.
Multiple House committees have begun holding virtual forums and roundtables in the last week, including Homeland Security, Education and Labor, Natural Resources, and Veterans’ Affairs.
While none of the events were official hearings, they served as a test run for how committees could start conducting business remotely.
The hope is for lawmakers to progress from informal roundtables to official hearings and bill markups by video conference as committees adapt to social distancing restrictions.
It’s a major shift for congressional committees accustomed to cramming dozens of lawmakers, staff, spectators and the media into one room at a time. House rules say official committee hearings and votes on legislation should be in person.
But as the pandemic drags on, the bipartisan task force studying alternate options this week encouraged committees to try using various video conferencing platforms for unofficial remote roundtables. The House Administration Committee offered guidance for which technologies would be best for different events depending on the level of interaction with the public.
So far the experiment is producing mixed results.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a virtual forum that included both parties and the chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans to discuss how the outbreak is affecting the homeless.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), called it “historic.” Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.), the panel’s top Republican, said that the forum was an “effort to respond” to the committee’s logistical challenges but that it was “not an equal substitute for an in-person hearing.”
A virtual forum held by the Education and Labor Committee on Friday to discuss proposals for the COVID-19 response also included members of both parties.
Forums held by other committees drew complaints from Republicans who complained that the Democratic committee chairs didn’t invite them. GOP lawmakers have pushed for Congress to meet in person during the pandemic instead of allowing remote work.
The Homeland Security Committee has held three forums with former Obama administration officials and the head of the American Federation of Government Employees to discuss the pandemic’s impact, while the Natural Resources Committee has held similar events with activists, officials and experts. All were forums that only included a handful of Democratic committee members.
Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote in a letter to House leaders on Thursday that “we have no guarantee that minority members will be involved or invited to committee events.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) stressed that the forums were “informal online events” with no written testimony or rounds of questioning like an official public hearing.
“We were elected to pursue oversight in the interest of the public. I remain committed to pursuing this oversight,” Thompson wrote in a letter in response to Rogers.
Natural Resources Committee Republicans lodged similar complaints. Rep. Rob Bishop (Utah), the panel’s top Republican, wrote in a letter to Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) that in the absence of official hearings, “these partisan roundtables have become the exclusive public function of the committee.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is part of a bipartisan task force on voting alternatives during the pandemic, expressed skepticism that committees could really do much work remotely given security and technological issues.
McCarthy has called for establishing new protocols so that committees could meet in person with enhanced physical distancing — such as meeting in bigger rooms, wearing masks, spacing people apart and limiting the number of staff present — instead of allowing remote work.
Some House committees are already trying that method. Although the full House won’t be in session when the Senate reconvenes on Monday, some committees still plan to meet.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic leaders abandoned initial plans to also call House members back to Washington on Monday following a warning from the Capitol physician that it would be unsafe while the nation’s capital has yet to flatten its number of COVID-19 cases. But Pelosi said that while not all of the roughly 430 members will be returning, it wouldn’t be as unsafe for committees.
“The committees are smaller, and so some can come back,” Pelosi said.
The House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Department of Health and Human Services and Labor Department plans to hold a hearing on Wednesday. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the chairman of the new select committee on the federal coronavirus response, told reporters that he hopes for the panel — to which McCarthy has not yet named any members — to also meet in Washington in the coming days.
The House Small Business Committee also held a hearing on April 23 for lawmakers — many of whom wore masks — to discuss the Paycheck Protection Program established by the coronavirus relief law in March.
Numerous Senate committees are planning in-person hearings next week on the pandemic and to consider nominations. One Senate Homeland Security subcommittee led by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) — a proponent of finding ways for Congress to do its work virtually during the pandemic — conducted a virtual roundtable with experts on the continuity of Senate operations and remote voting.
“There are several off-the-shelf solutions that the Senate could use to create a secure and reliable remote voting platform. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Portman said.
Some lawmakers in favor of allowing remote voting and committee work have also held virtual events on their own to demonstrate how the technology could work. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus this week held a “remote hearing” with experts to discuss proposals to prevent mass layoffs due to the pandemic.
“I think what we’re trying to teach people is technology really is our friend,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a Progressive Caucus co-chair.
Democratic leaders plan to vote on a rule change to allow a form of remote voting in which absent members can authorize colleagues physically present in the House chamber to cast votes on their behalf, even if Republicans don’t get on board.
In the meantime, many are trying to set an example of embracing technology. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a member of the bipartisan task force on virtual options, released a screenshot this week showing how his usual weekly meeting with committee chairs was conducted for the first time via video conference.
Hoyer said it was an “important step to show that videoconferencing technologies can work for Congress to conduct our business remotely during this unprecedented time.”