Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings

Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings
© Bonnie Cash

Tensions between Democrats and Republicans over whether to conduct committee business online heightened on Monday after Republicans did not attend a virtual House Natural Resources Committee meeting. 

According to Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' COVID-19 complicates California's record-setting wildfire season  Congress should investigate OAS actions in Bolivia MORE (D-Calif.), who chairs the Water Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee, Republican Reps. Robert Wittman (Va.), Garret GravesGarret Neal GravesOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push resolution to battle climate change, sluggish economy and racial injustice | Senators reach compromise on greenhouse gas amendment stalling energy bill | Trump courts Florida voters with offshore drilling moratorium The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Fred Upton says it is 'tragic' to see Americans reject masks, social distancing; Russia claims it will approve COVID-19 vaccine by mid-August Overnight Energy: House passes major conservation bill, sending to Trump | EPA finalizes rule to speed up review of industry permits MORE (La.), Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterGaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker Former cop Demings faces progressive pushback in veepstakes Overnight Energy: Biden campaign says he would revoke Keystone XL permit | EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement | Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings MORE (Fla.)  and Jody HiceJody Brownlow HicePelosi must go — the House is in dire need of new leadership House Republicans investigating California secretary of state's contract with Biden-linked firm GOP lawmakers want answers from Disney on Mulan, China MORE (Ga.) had sent in an RSVP saying they would attend the meeting on the impacts of the coronavirus on fisheries and the seafood supply chain, but ultimately did not show up. 

“I have been working with some of those same members...on letters and on legislation to help get some relief to fishing communities,” Huffman said. “ I thought if ever there’s an issue where we can put aside the partisan Kabuki and just try to do something productive together, this would be it.”

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He accused Republican leadership of issuing a “fatwa” on participation. 

Meanwhile, E&E News quoted an anonymous staffer saying that witnesses who join the hearings could pay a “price for engaging in such bluntly partisan activity.”

"Congress does change hands, and the chance to appear before a partisan fake hearing today may cost you a future of appearing before the real committee later,” the person reportedly said. 

However, a spokesman for Republicans on the committee denied that one of its staffers made such a comment.

“There was never any prohibition that our members participate and the comments in the article about witness retaliation did not come from anyone on committee staff,” spokesman Austin Hacker told The Hill in an email. 

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He added that committee staff notified members of what he characterized as Democrats’ “refusal to work with us on an agreement establishing consensus on witnesses, providing equal rights to all members, and clear disclaimers that these events do not constitute official business.”

A spokesperson for Webster, one of the four Republicans who ended up not attending the meeting, told The Hill in an email that the decision was made based on frustration that “committee leadership has turned these forums into partisan events.”

“No one requested Rep. Webster not attend,” the spokesperson said. “The Democrat majority refuses to work with minority committee members to allow every member an equal voice.”

California Rep. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockHouse to vote on removing cannabis from list of controlled substances House votes to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Cook shifts 20 House districts toward Democrats MORE, the top Republican on the Water Oceans and Wildlife panel, last week sent a letter to Huffman on the virtual hearing saying that “since it is neither authorized by the rules nor permissible under the Constitution, it is my opinion that no member should dignify it as the work of Congress.”

The same day he wrote the letter, which came in response to an invitation from Huffman, all of the top Republicans on House committees signed onto a letter condemning a since-passed rule change allowing lawmakers to vote and conduct committee meetings remotely. 

“Upending more than 200 years of precedent through partisan fiat will jeopardize the deliberative process of the House of Representatives and our ability to represent our constituents,” they wrote. “The House will be in session this week with debate being held and votes being cast. If the whole House can conduct business while adhering to health guidelines, then so too can our Committees.”

The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Natural Resources panel have also previously sparred over virtual meetings. 

Ranking Member Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopLWCF modernization: Restoring the promise Trump signs major conservation bill into law Overnight Energy: House passes major conservation bill, sending to Trump | EPA finalizes rule to speed up review of industry permits MORE (R-Utah) has accused the panel’s Democrats of “mimicking hearings to include inviting executive branch witnesses while not inviting Republican participation.”

In response, Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) argued that the “ongoing public health crisis demands leadership and innovation,” and encouraged Republicans to hold their own meetings.