Speaker Pelosi, end government-by-secret-caucus

Our Constitution set up three branches of government. And yet, in this crisis, only two branches are fully operational. In particular, the House of Representatives is no longer functioning as a legislative body at all but as an executive committee run by just one representative: the Speaker of the House. There are no open debates, no televised committee hearings, no minority rights. “The People’s House” is not open to the people. 

Somehow, the executive branch managed to keep the White House open — from the Office of the President to the Situation Room, from the Department of Justice to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they are all fully operational; some people even complain they see too much of the president with his coronavirus task force daily briefings for hours on end. There is no doubt, however, that the executive branch is open for business 24/7. It has put in place all the protocols and procedures to operate safely and to keep the country safe at the same time from others who would seek to take advantage of a vulnerable nation going through a pandemic.

Over at the Supreme Court, the justices were faced with some tough choices, and they decided that they would continue to carry out their full responsibilities. Until further notice, oral arguments are being conducted by phone so that the cases before the court will continue to move forward. For the first time in history, the public will be able to listen to Supreme Court arguments live, without any delay. Despite the advanced age of some of the justices, they have figured out how to adapt and to stay open for business.


Just yesterday, they issued a major ruling not related to the virus but about whether criminal jury verdicts must be by a unanimous vote. It was a complex ruling with an unusual pairing of justices — one judge is not operating for the rest, they are all operating together. In this crisis they have become more, not less, transparent. 

In contrast, the House of Representatives has stood empty since the beginning of this crisis.

The power of the House has been usurped by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Pelosi pushes for drug pricing measure | South Africa to resume administering Johnson & Johnson vaccine | Early data indicate Pfizer, Moderna vaccines safe for pregnant women Allow a vote on the 'Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act' Female Republicans 'horrified' by male GOP lawmaker's description of Cheney: report MORE (D-Calif.) and a small group of leaders who decide, without public hearings, on trillions of dollars of expenditure. There is no regular order or debate of any kind — one representative who was voted on by 1/435th of the nation effectively yields as much authority as the president or the collective justices of the Supreme Court.

Daily phone calls are held in secret with the Democratic caucus, and representatives press “star 3” to request a chance to speak. Some committees have similar one-party meetings, while others include Republicans — none of it in public. A single-caucus meeting in private was never meant to be the Congress of the United States.

It certainly does not have to be this way. Even in “Star Wars,” the Galactic Senate figures out how to meet across galaxies. The procedure here on Earth could be a lot simpler. Of course, everyone and every committee could simply be on video meetings with feeds to the press and the public. Better yet might be a mixed-presence meeting in the chamber, allowing a few representatives to be there in person, with others at home appearing on a screen placed in their chair and facing the presiding officer. Each representative could be authenticated by voiceprint. The presiding officer could then see all of the representatives as in a typical session and allocate time as required. TV cameras could record it all so that it could still be seen on C-SPAN.


The public’s business could seamlessly, safely continue to operate in this fashion. Committee hearings could be held in similar ways. Once authenticated, votes could easily be recorded electronically among those who are actually present. All that would be required is a change in the House rules to define presence as both physical and virtual.

With billions and even trillions of dollars flying in every direction, it would not take much money — and no new technology — to get the chambers up and running in this fashion. Perhaps the failure to figure out a simple solution, as the other two branches did, was just an oversight by an older leadership unfamiliar with the ease of modern technology. Possible, but unlikely. More likely is that it is on purpose because, by shutting down the process of hearings and minority rights, power is concentrated in the leadership; they get to call the shots, and the rest of the members are reduced to figureheads who get to press “star 3” on calls.

Aside from the pandemic, the country faces significant problems with its health care system, cybersecurity and immigration. People are protesting the power and authority of the state governments, some of which may have exceeded their constitutional authority. Congressional committees should be meeting to hammer out new legislation in all of these areas. Their hearings could be online, and hundreds of thousands could listen into the democratic process at work. All three branches could serve as a model for the country, each adapting to the times on a temporary basis and enabling greater, not less, transparency. 

It is time to open up the legislative branch and allow each member to fulfill his or her full rights and responsibilities as elected officials of this country, not just as members of a party caucus. Perhaps when the crisis started and there was uncertainty about the virus and how to operate, there was an excuse to work in this fashion. A month later, almost every business — including the other branches of government — has figured out how to allow work-from-home policies and procedures except, mysteriously, the House of Representatives.

More than ever, it is important for our government to work in a transparent, bipartisan manner, using the most open and modern methods available. 

Mark PennMark Penn64 percent view 'cancel culture' as threat to freedom: poll Poll: Biden approval remains steady amid struggles with immigration, foreign affairs 44 percent say gun violence is related to easy access to firearms: poll MORE is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a global organization of digital-first marketing companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.