Senate Armed Services shelves 'paper hearing' plans

Senate Armed Services shelves 'paper hearing' plans
© Greg Nash

The Senate Armed Services Committee has put its plan to hold “paper hearings” during the coronavirus crisis on ice after one hearing.

“When the committee first laid out the concept of ‘paper hearings,’ we understood that, being in uncharted territory, we would remain flexible and re-assess the process as conditions changed,” panel spokeswoman Marta Hernandez said in a statement Thursday

“Recognizing the additional burden on the Department of Defense at this critical time, Chairman [James] Inhofe and Ranking Member [Jack] Reed have agreed to postpone future paper hearings until the committee has more clarity on the COVID-19 situation,” she added.

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Hernandez also alluded to the difficulty of holding confirmation hearings, something that has taken on new prominence after this week's resignation of Thomas Modly as acting Navy secretary.

“As you would expect, the timing or format for upcoming nomination hearings are being discussed in the context of guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], Office of the Attending Physician, the Majority Leader and local government,” she said.

Last month, the panel said it would hold what it was calling paper hearings in an effort to keep the annual defense policy bill on track despite lawmakers staying out of Washington during the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the format laid out last month, opening statements from Inhofe (R-Okla.), Reed (D-R.I.) and the witnesses were to be posted online at the time the hearing was scheduled to start. Written questions from committee members and witnesses’ written answers were then to be posted a week later.

The committee held one such hearing for the Army secretary and chief of staff. The opening statements were posted on time, but a week later, when the questions and answers were supposed to be released, the committee said the Army asked for more time since it was dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

“DOD has rightfully focused on COVID-19 response, which means the department has struggled to respond in a timely manner to the paper hearing questions for the Department of the Army posture hearing,” Hernandez said Thursday.

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The committee still plans to post the Army’s answers online “as soon as they are received,” she said.

The committee had also planned to hold a paper hearing on the Energy Department’s nuclear budget Thursday. But late Wednesday it was postponed due, the panel said Thursday, to the decision to put the paper hearings in general on hold.

“The issues associated with production of nuclear warheads remains central to modernization of the nuclear triad, and as such, the committee expects to address these critical questions in the future,” Hernandez said.

Inhofe has previously laid out a schedule for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would see the committee considering the bill in May and the full Senate voting on it in June.

The NDAA is considered a must-pass bill, dictating matters as routine as how many planes and ships the military can buy to as sweeping as creating last year a new military service in the Space Force.

Inhofe “remains committed” to finishing the committee’s work on the NDAA by the end of May, but he also “remains flexible because of the uncertainty associated with the coronavirus in the weeks ahead,” Hernandez said.

“Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed continue to work to reach this goal with transparency and accountability in mind,” she said. “At this point, no decisions have been made, but as this crisis evolves, the committee will announce changes to the anticipated markup schedule.”