Bipartisan caucus set to hold ‘virtual Congress’ on Thursday
The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus is slated to hold a “virtual Congress” on Thursday, providing lawmakers with the chance to remotely debate the next major coronavirus relief package amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House has largely been out of session — with the exception of being called back to vote on coronavirus-related stimulus bills — since mid-March, when the outbreak began to escalate. Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J), the co-chairmen of the group of centrist House lawmakers, said they are aiming to provide a way for members to have a voice in the legislative process without imposing a safety risk to members and staff.
“Our focus … is to make sure we figure out ways for debate, oversight, accountability, and making sure that we continue to properly discuss the issues and debate the issues that are essential to actually addressing COVID[-19]. But also, we have other House business that we have to do,” Gottheimer told The Hill in an interview Wednesday.
“So, what we’re doing tomorrow is bringing together a group of Problem Solvers members and having a virtual floor debate in a virtual Congress just like you would on the House floor, run through time where … both Democrats and Republicans debate a key issue, which is making sure that we have resources … for state and local governments in the next package,” he said.
During the Facebook Live event, 24 members split evenly between parties will be allotted time on the video conference to debate their stances on what they believe should be in the next measure. While House GOP leadership has been vocal in their calls for members to return to Washington — arguing it could be done safely if the proper precautions are taken — Democratic leaders recently postponed bringing members back after consulting the attending physician, who deemed it too risky.
Reed said that while he is supportive of returning to work at the Capitol, he understands his colleagues’ concerns, and feels virtual hearings and debate could potentially be a feasible alternative as the country continues to battle the health crisis. The New York Republican added that he believes the country needs transparency in the legislative process now more than ever, arguing that now is not the time for backroom deals made by just a handful of lawmakers.
“The issue of participation by members was raised on both sides, and there’s a strong appetite for us on my side. I am supportive of going in person and doing that legislative process,” Reed told The Hill. “However, I’m open to the fact that if the Speaker doesn’t want us to do that, at least we should be using technology to debate these issues.
“And my concern is that by not having a transparent process, the American people are going to see right through this charade and they’re gonna realize that there are really only two or four people in a room making all the decisions for the future of America, and that’s not good,” he continued. “We’re talking [trillion-dollar] decisions that are going to impact generations of Americans, and to really just lead that with no public process is very damaging to our democratic republic, and so I’m open to using the technology, but I would still be more than willing to show up in person.”
Gottheimer echoed Reed’s sentiments, adding that even if members are called back to Washington to vote, virtual debate and hearings could prove to be beneficial under the current circumstances.
“I think it’s essential to have while we’re in the state of emergency and facing this pandemic to make sure that we continue to use every possible venue we have and every technology we have to debate these issues and ensure strong oversight,” he said. “We obviously have the technology available to debate remotely, and even if we go in person to vote, I think we could be using this period of time — whether it’s committee hearings or for debate — to use technology to have that debate.”
Gottheimer and Reed noted the challenges of legislating remotely, adding that they believe taking strides to allow members to publicly lay out and discuss their ideas could help alleviate the problem.
“Obviously you’re dealing with a crisis, so the logistics of attending to constituents … is your top priority, and so you’re trying to take care of that, as well as have the opportunities to really engage in a debate,” Reed said. “Individual conversations happen all the time, but there’s no real big debate on the issue, and there are no committee hearings [and] there’s no input from experts.”
Reed also added that while individual groups have held discussions with experts, those conversations don’t “replace the Ways and Means Committee, or the Financial Services Committee room where … those experts come in and offer their insights … and input.”
Thursday’s event could be used as a jumping-off point to learn what works and what doesn’t for debate and hearings on a larger scale, Reed said.
“I would just say, you know, obviously what we’re trying to show is that from us as members, there’s this energy to do this, we’re willing to experiment and hopefully people will learn from our experiment that there’s a way to do this,” he said.