Facing the Novel Coronavirus, We Begin a Novel, Virtual Congress

Steny Hoyer
May 27 · 8 min read
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President Abraham Lincoln famously said: “As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.” In 2020, new thinking is required to adapt to the unusual conditions presented by the COVID-19 outbreak. That is as true for Congress as it is for the millions of businesses, government agencies, and other entities now adopting virtual technologies to ensure continuity of operations. As I’ve said time and time again, no Member of Congress wants to be working virtually; nothing can replace in-person exchanges on the House Floor and in committee rooms. But as coronavirus outbreaks continue all across the country, it is clear that forcing the House to meet in person in Washington carries a real risk of exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. To require in-person meetings of the House and committees would place all of our constituents in danger, risking Members spreading COVID-19 from Washington to every corner of the country. The challenges facing the House are new, so House must think and act anew to meet them.

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That is why the House adopted temporary measures that will allow for remote work, including proxy voting on the House Floor and virtual committee proceedings. This week, the House will implement these new procedures for the first time. During votes on the House Floor this week, Members will be allowed to cast their votes by proxy in a fully transparent process, with much thought having gone into how to design this new system. Members must send signed letters to the Clerk of the House designating who is authorized to vote on their behalf, and they must send written instructions to that individual with voting instructions for every question before the House. The Member casting a vote on behalf of someone else will have to announce on the Floor for whom they are casting a vote as well as how that Member has directed that vote to occur.

I am deeply disappointed that House Republicans have decided to sue the House in court rather than support allowing it to work safely as we do the people’s business. This lawsuit comes after Senator McConnell made false statements about the proxy voting system the House now has in place. Clearly, Republicans are more interested in using this crisis as an opportunity to shut down our government rather than as a chance to set partisanship aside and work for the greater good. The Constitution is clear on the House’s authority to adopt these new practices: Article I, Section 5, clause 2 provides each house of Congress the ability to set its own rules. The courts have previously given the House wide latitude to do so, and the rule change we made to protect public health fits neatly within those bounds. There is no reason why we should put lives at risk when technology can enable us to meet remotely — just as committees have done in the Senate.

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Indeed, we have already seen legislatures in many of our states and in countries around the world adopt these same remote-work practices successfully. Parliaments in the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere have shown us how national legislatures can continue operating in a pandemic. Meanwhile, we need look no further than the many state legislatures across our nation, modeled after the federal Congress, for examples of how many of the same tools adopted through H. Res. 965 are already working effectively for representational government here in America.

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Remote Action in United Kingdom, Chile, Brazil, and Canada (Clockwise from top-left).

Here is what H. Res. 965 has changed:

  • It authorizes committees to hold remote proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, including virtual hearings, markups, and depositions.
  • It authorizes Members participating in virtual committee proceedings to count toward a quorum and to vote.
  • It authorizes voting by proxy on the House Floor, with all Members participating remotely able to count toward a quorum.
  • It limits to ten the number of proxy votes any Member on the Floor can cast on behalf of others and requires Members granting proxy voting rights to do so in writing to the Clerk’s office as well as by providing exact voting instructions in writing on every question.
  • It authorizes the development of a fully remote voting system, to be implemented once such a system is certified as secure and properly tested.
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While I regret that these changes are necessary, it is critical that the House be able to carry out the full extent of its work even as this pandemic continues. It ought to be reassuring to those concerned about permanently altering the way the House operates that H. Res. 965 only allows these changes to be implemented for an emergency period of 45 days, which can be renewed for one additional 45-day period if the crisis has not yet abated. I worked in concert with the Chairman of the Rules Committee and Chairwoman of the House Administration Committee as part of a bipartisan task force in an attempt to reach agreement with Republicans on how we could adopt remote work practices. I am deeply disappointed that Republicans chose not to support the temporary changes, even though they included a number of their suggestions:

  • Committees are required to use only virtual platforms that have been approved and certified as secure by the Chief Administrative Officer of the House.
  • Committees are permitted to hold hybrid-style hearings, markups, and depositions, where some Members participate in person while others do so remotely.
  • Committees may not hold closed or executive sessions remotely, other than the Committee on Ethics.
  • Committees, either at the full-committee level or subcommittee level, must test any new platform with two virtual hearings before holding any virtual markups.
  • The House must provide Members with twenty-four-hours’ notice before any final passage votes on the Floor in order to give them time to secure and designate proxies if they have not already done so.
  • Chairs must respect the reality that Members may be in different time zones when scheduling virtual hearings and markups.
  • Committee chairs must provide a list of individuals with participatory access to a virtual hearing platform to their committees’ ranking members at least twenty-four hours prior to the hearing, to the greatest extent practicable.
  • The Rules Committee must issue uniform regulations on how to enforce decorum in a virtual setting.

Already, we have seen how the regular business of the people’s House can continue unabated, with Members and staff working remotely and using video conferencing technology. The Democratic-led House has demonstrated that, like so many institutions across the country, it is possible do much of its work remotely. It is a fallacy to say that the House is not working and serving the people just because Members and staff cannot convene safely in the same building at the same time. Indeed, committees have already begun holding virtual forums and roundtables using secure videoconference technology.

The Veterans Affairs Committee was the first to hold a full committee, bipartisan virtual forum streamed online for all Americans to watch on homelessness among veterans.

The Small Business Committee has held bipartisan virtual forums on several topics, including the implementation of the CARES Act, the Small Business Administration (SBA) inspectors general report on the Paycheck Protection Program, small business relief in rural America, and small business insurance claims.

The Committee on Education and Labor held a full committee, bipartisan virtual Member briefing to examine the abrupt closure of schools due to COVID-19 and the learning challenges schools are facing.

The Committee on Financial Services held a bipartisan virtual roundtable with financial regulators.

Homeland Security Committee Chairman Benny Thompson has held ten virtual forums to hear from a range of experts, including former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

The Natural Resources Committee has livestreamed eight forums on the coronavirus pandemic, including the impact on longstanding environmental and economic inequalities in our country and the federal response to coronavirus in U.S. territories and tribal communities.

We have met with committee chairs weekly via videoconference, and we can testify firsthand that it works — as can so many Members, who have been holding hundreds of virtual events by video and by phone in their districts, engaging with the media, and making certain that vital constituent services have not been interrupted.

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Democrats do not want to change how the House does its job, nor do we want to alter the fundamental character of the institution; instead, we want to use new tools to ensure that the House can do its job under these extraordinary circumstances just as effectively and comprehensively as it has before. We want to make certain that the House is not only able to meet the present challenge but ready in the months ahead if another wave occurs. The people’s House must be able to continue doing the people’s work.

Steny Hoyer

Written by

The Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Maryland's 5th Congressional District.

Steny Hoyer

Written by

The Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Maryland's 5th Congressional District.

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