Senate panel switches to 'paper hearings' amid coronavirus pandemic

Senate panel switches to 'paper hearings' amid coronavirus pandemic
© Greg Nash

The Senate Armed Services Committee is switching to what it’s calling “paper hearings” in order to follow guidance on preventing the spread of the coronavirus while it tries to keep the annual defense policy bill on track.

“While the committee is committed to continuing congressional oversight and data collection necessary to drafting the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), to protect the health of everyone involved, traditional hearings are not possible under current conditions,” the committee said in a statement Wednesday.

Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeChamber of Commerce endorses McSally for reelection Overnight Defense: Top admiral says 'no condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' | Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings Top admiral: 'No condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' MORE (R-Okla.) has previously laid out a schedule for the NDAA that would see the committee considering the bill in May and the full Senate voting on it in June.

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In the lead-up to the bill, the committee typically has a packed hearing schedule, with defense officials coming before the panel multiple times per week.

But the hearings — which are usually also filled with congressional and defense staffers, reporters, lobbyists and others — would not appear to follow social distancing guidelines asking people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and stay six feet away from each other to stem the coronavirus’s spread.

Several committee members, including Inhofe, 85, are in the 65 years or older age group considered at high risk for severe illness from the virus, and at least one member, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), already had to self-quarantine after possible contact with someone who tested positive.

The committee said Wednesday it is “closely monitoring” the coronavirus situation and is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Congress’s Office of the Attending Physician. 

The committee has a hearing scheduled for Thursday with the secretary and chief of staff of the Army. That hearing will now be conducted in the new “paper hearing” format, the committee said Wednesday.

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For the paper hearings, witness testimony and opening statements from Inhofe and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedWhen 'Buy American' and common sense collide Hillicon Valley: Russia 'amplifying' concerns around mail-in voting to undermine election | Facebook and Twitter take steps to limit Trump remarks on voting | Facebook to block political ads ahead of election Top Democrats press Trump to sanction Russian individuals over 2020 election interference efforts MORE (R.I.), will be publicly released at the hearing’s scheduled start time.

Committee members will submit questions that will be sent to the Pentagon at the scheduled start time. The panel will release the questions and answers within a week, though Wednesday’s statement warned the committee “may exercise discretion and flexibility to ensure the Department of Defense is able to fulfill mission-critical duties, especially those related to COVID-19 response and national security.”

“When conditions allow for a return to traditional hearings, SASC will transition back to that preferred mode,” the statement said. “In addition, the committee is exploring other ways to continue these critical oversight functions.”