Remote Proceeding Pioneers
Meet the Congressional Committees that are going first (and the staffers making it possible)
Congress is not an easy place for innovation. Success is rarely recognized. Going first is rarely rewarded. Failure is rarely forgiven. One person’s embarrassing moment is another’s campaign ad.
That’s why I have joined several “friends of Congress” — Congressman Brian Baird, Beth Simone Noveck, Daniel Schuman, and lorelei kelly –– over the past few weeks to help “de-risk” new approaches to remote legislative work. We have been studying what other legislatures are doing and holding “mock” hearings (on March 23 and April 16) to kick the proverbial tires.
Lately we are seeing considerable progress within Congress, as several committees begin to experiment with virtual or hybrid proceedings. Several of the staffers who managed these first ventures in remote experiments have begun to share their experiences… and there is a lot to learn! What follows is a fly-on-the-wall overview of the lessons learned from the House Natural Resources Committee (majority), the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Select Committee on Investigations, House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and the Senate Banking Committee.
Kudos to the members and staff of these and other committees who are overcoming technical and cultural challenges to get Congress back to work!
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).
As you can see in the video below, things went very smoothly. The committee used Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) to create its own “skin” around a Zoom speaker displays. (Check out the impressive committee full committee display at 14:15!)
Director of Public Engagement, Chris Espinosa, explained that the Natural Resources majority spent considerable time in the past year experimenting with events and technology — including an in-person “EJConvening” in July that launched a months-long public feedback process for the drafting of its Environmental Justice bill. Espinosa said that these experiences helped members feel less reticent when the need arose to take their work online. And the tech staff was happy to shared their work (like the OBS display trick) with colleagues.
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.
House Hearing on Homeless Veterans and COVID-19 Pandemic
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee held a virtual discussion on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on homeless…
The forum was broadcast live on YouTube and later carried by C-SPAN. Yuri Beckelman, Senior Advisor to Chairman Takano [D, CA], said that the committee built on the Natural Resources playbook — using the same OBS/Zoom setup — and learned many of their own lessons, including clear roles for the *many* staffers it takes to make a live remote proceeding run well, including:
- 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.
Yuri noted that members are increasingly comfortable with various videoconference technology thanks to experience in other contexts –– using Zoom or Google Meet for meetings with constituents and, increasingly, holding caucus meetings on Microsoft Teams.
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.
The committee staff worked to prepare members for the first virtual proceeding with several practice sessions, sending technical guides a few days before, and preparing scripts for the chair and vice chair. The staff prepared technically to conduct the Cisco WebEx meeting by:
- Having a list of committee members’ phone numbers at the ready
- Establishing staff members as “hosts” (and several alternate co-hosts just in case)
The HSGAC SCI proceeding also offered a chance for witness, lorelei kelly, of the Georgetown Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation to make the case for rural broadband, as she “testified” from the cabin of a pickup truck in rural 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.
As Digital Director, Alyssa Innis, shared in the staff roundtable, the Modernization Committee (ever on brand) contributed a few innovations to the remote proceeding evolution. Namely: they figured out an elegant solution to the need for a visable “speaker timer” (check it out below). They also allowed witnesses to share slides and backgrounds in their presentations.
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.
It turns out the Senate Banking Committee had an extra edge for their first-time use of Cisco WebEx for this hybrid hearing. TechCongress Fellow, Jennie Kam, who is on a tour of duty on Ranking Member Sherrod Brown’s [D, OH] team, is a ten-year veteran of Cisco. Jennie brought years of experience working with the WebEx platform and was able to help committee staff get the settings just right.
The Senate Banking hybrid hearing went so well that several Senate committees soon followed suit. And Banking looks ready to try again, with a fully remote oversight hearing on Oversight of Financial Regulators on the schedule for May 12.
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.
Former Rep. Brian Baird [D, WA], who served as “chairman” for our mock remote hearings, provided an excellent summation of the lessons learned from these pioneering committees the “mocks” that preceded the real thing:
1. The critical importance of advance training and practice before going live so members and staff feel confident in both the technology and the hearing process as it functions with the technology. This will be especially important if a selected technology is not the most “user friendly” or familiar to members and staff
2. Having adequate technology available, e.g. two screens for the chair and staff to manage the hearing while also receiving input from staff and vice versa. Also having backup systems and readily available tech support
3. Clarity around functions like chat so members and staff can communicate with one another privately
4. Procedural adaptations that are agreed upon by members, e.g. speaking and questioning order, time allotted, how recognition is sought and granted, how “tech glitches” can be managed so a member does not lose their opportunity to question or offer input.
5. Preparation beforehand, e.g. briefing books, prewritten opening statements etc. can really help things go smoothly and efficiently.
6. The importance of assuring that the rank and file membership will be included and that the rights of the minority will be respected in the process and the technology.
7. The value of members being patient with the process and respectful of one another and the chair. This is of course always expected but it is perhaps even more important for this in order for remote interactions to be positive and productive
8. It should be emphasized that as challenging as this virus has been, we may need to be prepared to adapt for a longer duration. Further, we must recognize that things could be far worse, e.g. if the pandemic were even more contagious and deadly, if we were facing deliberate bio/chem attacks, or if there were blatant direct attacks from terrorists or hostile powers. All of the remote measure we are exploring now could be vital elements of how such events would be responded to in the future.
9. Finally, even as we work to respond to the current crisis, we must acknowledge that even if the technology is sorted out and rules adapted to allow its use, there remain fundamental and profound vulnerabilties and threats to continuity in all three branches of government. Those vulnerabilities need to be addressed and solved before, not after, a crisis leaves us no choice or time to do so.
Marci Harris is co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, an online platform for legislative information and civic engagement, and a former Congressional staffer. She serves on the board of the People-Centered Internet.