Second “Mock” Hearing Convenes Experts to Discuss Remote Proceedings

Retired General David Petraeus, former Members of Congress, UK MP Chi Onwurah, and others discuss how Congress can keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic

Marci Harris
Apr 18, 2020 · 7 min read

On April 16, former members of Congress participated in a “Mock Remote Hearing” exercise to test the viability of online proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic (following an earlier proceeding on March 23).

The event was co-chaired by Former Rep. Brian Baird [D, WA] and Former Rep. Bob Inglis [R, SC] and co-hosted by: AEI, The Brookings Institution, Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, Georgetown University, Bipartisan Policy Center, Congressional Management Foundation, Demand Progress, The GovLab at New York University, Lincoln Network, and POPVOX.

Key quotes and links:

Former Rep. Brian Baird [D-WA] served as “chairman” of the Mock Remote Hearing:

“Someone asked me why everyone has worked so hard and so rapidly to put this hearing together and why so many former members of Congress and such distinguished witnesses agreed to participate. The answer I gave was simple and straightforward. “Because we all took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. That oath still stands. As former Members of Congress, as Americans, we have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that the first branch of our Government, the Congress, can and will fulfill its constitutional role even in, and especially in, times of national crisis such as these That is why we are all here today and that is why this hearing matters.”

Former Rep. Bob Inglis [R, SC] served as “vice- chairman” of the Mock Remote Hearing:

“I commend the former members of Congress and the brand-new former members who are now members of this “committee” for their continuing devotion to the same task of making sure that the first branch of government can operate even in the midst of a crisis like the coronavirus and others that we might anticipate.”

Retired General David Petraeus discussed the use of remote technology use in military and corporate settings:

“Like the military, members of Congress have to show up for duty — especially at a time of the greatest crisis in post-Cold War history, during which the enemy—the coronavirus—has already killed far more Americans than 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and both wars in Iraq combined. But, as this gathering demonstrates, showing up virtually is an option that deserves further explanation, experimentation, and eventually implementation.”

Representatives from Microsoft and Zoom shared how their technologies are being used on Capitol Hill:

Microsoft:

Doug Deitterick, Senior Technical Specialist supporting the Federal Government and Department of Defense, shared information about how Microsoft is working with Hill offices.

Zoom:

Rick Drum, Head of Federal Sales, Zoom, described Zoom’s product for government.

The Honorable Chi Onwurah, Member of Parliament, Newcastle, UK, discussed efforts to create a “Virtual Parliament” in the UK:

“As a Shadow Minister for Digital, I believe that the coronavirus pandemic will shape the nature of our longer-term digital future. All over the country, grandparents are trying video conferencing for the first time and workers are moving their office home. There is also a real fear at what the future holds as unemployment rises to never rarely before seen levels. Democratic representatives must show that we can be as adaptable as those we represent and representative democracies must be seen to continue to function because no crisis should silence the voices of the people.”

Ms. Maria López Moreno de Cala, Director of the International Department of the Congreso de los Diputados, described remote voting technology in use in Spain:

“In Spain we have we have applied a remote voting system [using] a previous system we had applied in 2012 it was the system that we used for the MPs that were sick, pregnant, or on a maternity leave, so we had already some sort of remote voting system in place. This system allows the MPs who request to have a remote system to be given a list of matters in which he or she can vote and a specific timeframe for the voting. This timeframe is usually two hours long and it must finish at least one hour before the beginning of the plenary session. This is the way that we do it so that the legal services have the time to check the validity of the a voting.”

Beth Simone Noveck, Professor, New York University and Director, The Governance Lab discussed how legislatures around the world are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic:

Daniel Schuman, Policy Director, Demand Progress, discussed legal and constitutional issues around remote proceedings:

The Congressional Research Service, my former employer, said in a recent report that this gives rise to two countervailing interpretations. On one hand, that physical presence in the chamber is necessary, as that is the long-standing practice. On the other, that physical presence is not necessary because what’s important is the capacity to transact business. CRS then points to an important consideration, the views of the Framers. They did not want for a majority quorum requirement to undermine the national legislature’s ability to operate. Nor did they want a majority quorum requirement to disadvantage members who live far away. The Founders’ considerations were very practical. We must be as well. (Link to full testimony.)

Impressions from former members

We asked the participating former members of Congress for their thoughts on the exercise. Here is what we heard:

In a weird way, people seemed more “real”. That is a very good thing for today’s politicians. There is a need to understand when more access is needed for the public, and when it needs to be secure. Both are possible. — Fmr. Rep. Mary Bono [R, CA]

One thing that was beneficial with the virtual experience?
“Hearing from international parliamentarians” — Fmr. Rep. Bill Enyert [D, IL]

“I think the ability to get people to participate who would otherwise would not be able to be present is a HUGE plus.” — Fmr. Rep. Elizabeth Esty [D, CT]

What advice would you offer for current members who might be considering remote proceedings?
“It is inevitable — so prepare.” ––Fmr. Rep. Connie Morella [R, MD]

What, if anything, was “lost” from the virtual experience that is present for in-person proceedings?
“The off-line banter that develops relationships including bipartisan trust.”––Fmr. Rep. James Jones[D, OK]

“My concern lies in the potential of technology moving the voting process away from the legislative chambers with the result of creating a remote Congress.”––Fmr. Rep. Robert Walker [R, PA]

What advice would you offer for current members who might be considering remote proceedings?

“Make sure members who wish to grandstand politically on an issue in the hearing will be shut off. If the online hearings go on for hours as some of our live ones did, the members will lose interest on video.” — Fmr. Rep. Melissa Hart [R, PA]

“Check it out it is better than conference calls.”—Fmr. Rep. Bob Etheridge [D, NC]

“Looks like it is possible to take the time to learn how to use this important technology to do the work of the people and still be safe. This is a valuable tool — do not be afraid of it. However, it is important to take the time to learn. Do not just jump into it and expect it to work for you. — Fmr. Rep. Debbie Halvorson [D, IL]

“This is not about technology (which is proven and secure) but about behavior. All Members should become familiar with Zoom or Team and utilize these tools to do Congressional work during this period of pandemic.”—Fmr. Rep. LF Payne [D, VA]

“Do all you can to assure your colleagues have an opportunity for experiencing the process. “Mock” may be beneficial if possible. Congress must be seen as engaged and informed and yes, effective!” — Fmr. Rep. Sheila Frahm [R, KS]

“Just DO IT ! — Once again, not as a substitute for in person exchanges, , but in exigent circumstances such as this- in order to advance critical decision making, remote proceedings are terrific.” Claudine Schneider [R, RI]

Special thanks to the Former Members of Congress Association and participating former members:

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.

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