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Remote Proceeding Pioneers

Meet the Congressional Committees that are going first (and the staffers making it possible)

First online: House Natural Resources Majority (April 17)

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva [D, NM] and majority members were pioneers when it comes to virtual proceedings, holding the first virtual forum back on April 17 on the topic of “Coronavirus Response in Indian Country,” with three more since then (though only with majority members participating, rather than a full committee event).

First live full committee proceeding: House Veteran’s Affairs (April 28)

On April 28, the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee became the first to conduct the a live, bipartisan virtual forum, on the topic of “Coronavirus Pandemic Response: The Impact Of Economic and Healthcare Services on Homeless Veterans in America.” In a promising sign (and a nod to the fact that virtual proceedings are still something other than actual “hearings” or “markups”) the VA staff added a “Virtual Forums” page to the committee website.

  • One staffer as a “body man” for the chair, who is physically present with the chair and receiving all incoming messages
  • One staffer in charge of maintaining speaker order, to keep track of who is present and who speaks next
  • One staffer checking sign-ins and “promoting” members to “panelists” (Yuri noted that it would be helpful to have a list ahead of time of *any* phone numbers a member might use if they decide to call in instead of connecting in a browser or app)
  • One staffer in the role of timer who, in the case of HVAC, actually held up cards alerting speakers to time remaining at 1 minute, 30 seconds, and “stop”
  • ALSO: two minority committee staffers were present in Zoom so that they could see the member view and chat (though the Zoom chat was not used)
  • The committee created a separate backchannel in Microsoft Teams for all committee liaisons from members’ personal offices to handle logistics: mics, speaking order, videos, etc.

First Senate virtual proceeding: Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (April 30)

The first virtual committee proceeding in the Senate was a “roundtable” on the topic of remote voting, chaired by Sen. Rob Portman [R, OH], in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Portman is a leading proponent of remote voting in times of crisis, introducing a bipartisan resolution with Sen. Durbin [D, IL]. Just before the event, the committee released a comprehensive staff report covering the history, legal basis, and technical requirements for secure remote voting. It was all part of what Senior Advisor, Sam Mulopulos, called the “three Rs” of the committee’s strategy: (1) resolution, (2) report, and (3) roundtable.

  • Having a list of committee members’ phone numbers at the ready
  • Establishing staff members as “hosts” (and several alternate co-hosts just in case)
Loreli Kelly “testifying” from New Mexico

Meta Member Roundtable: House Select Committee on Modernization (May 1)

The bipartisan House Select Committee the Modernization of Congress “went meta” with a remote proceeding on the topic of remote proceedings. Chairman Derek Kilmer [D, WA], Vice Chairman Graves [R, GA], and committee members invited The GovLab director Beth Simone Noveck (and me) to discuss committee continuity & best practices for remote work.

One ModCom staffer joined the Zoom, renamed himself “Timer” and set the timer as his background. Genius!

The first “Hybrid” Committee Proceeding: Senate Banking (May 5)

On May 5, with little fanfare, the Senate Banking Committee held what is the first official “hearing” to be conducted (at least partially) remotely. In a socially distanced 106 Dirksen, Sen. Crapo [R, ID], presided over the first hearing conducted with several members participating remotely (on the nominations of Brian D. Miller to be Treasury’s Special Inspector General For Pandemic Recovery Designate and Dana T. Wade to be Assistant Secretary of HUD). To maintain safe distancing, the committee staff and Architect of the Capitol set the room up with four monitors and cameras allowing members the option to participate by teleconference.

photo: New York Times

Minority Concerns

As proceedings begin to move online, it will be important to establish clear process understanding between the majority and minority. Some of the concerns that have been expressed include:

  • Some minority members were concerned that a recorded hearing could be selectively edited by the majority after its conclusion (a concern addressed with live cast)
  • Minority members and staff are concerned about control of the microphone and the potential ability of committee staff to selectively “mute” members (a concern that exists for in-person proceedings as well; can be addressed with clear agreements up front).
  • One important issue uncovered by the live cast remote/hybrid proceedings in HVAC and Banking is the issue of a delay for those watching on the stream (rather than “in” the meeting as a participant). Most committees will have staffers watch the stream without joining, which could lead to a lag of several seconds and reduces the opportunity for real-time remote staff input.

Summarizing Lessons Learned for the Road Ahead

One important thing to note about each of these proceedings is that they were, for the most part, not contentious. The remote and hybrid processes worked well as members made statements and asked questions of witnesses. These processes will have to be even more developed and understood before committees are able to move to more controversial topics–– including the potential for official hearings that may include subpoenaed witnesses–– and, eventually, mark up, and voting on bills.



Governing in the 21st Century

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Marci Harris

POPVOX CEO and co-founder. Entrepreneur, lawyer, recovering Congressional staffer. Former Harvard Ash and New America California fellow.