As the rest of the country begins adapting to virtual life amid the coronavirus pandemic, Congress is having a hard time keeping up.
Rank-and-file lawmakers in both chambers insist the day to day operations of Congress — hearings, markups, press conferences, caucus meetings — should continue in some form while the House and Senate remain out for weeks in order to prevent the spread of the virus on Capitol Hill.
But congressional leaders have staunchly resisted modern technology that could allow members to vote remotely. And only now are top lawmakers starting to explore options to make other congressional duties digital.
“Leadership from both parties has been very resistant to the use of technology,” said freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), who said she has privately been urging House leaders to embrace more modern tools to conduct congressional business. “We have to do better than this.”
The slow pace of a legislative body that is in some ways still very much enmeshed in the mores of the 1700s has frustrated members in both parties, who privately complain that leadership has long ignored ideas about how to transition to a more digital workflow. And it means that at a moment of national crisis, Congress is likely unable to function at full capacity.
Democrats are particularly anxious to begin public oversight of the administration’s disbursement of $2 trillion in coronavirus relief funds. Earlier Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the formation of a special coronavirus oversight committee in the House but it’s unclear when the panel will officially be established or how its members will conduct business.
Leaders in both parties have started to do some improvising. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) launched a Zoom press conference this week and has begun surveying members about their tech access as they weigh taking caucus meetings online.
GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has held calls with House Republicans, inviting guests like Dr. Anthony Fauci as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who will address members on Friday.
And both Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) converted their usual in-person weekly news conferences into conference calls with reporters on Thursday.
But while House and Senate committees have live-streamed their hearings for years and even held off-site briefings that are broadcast online, transitioning to a nearly all-virtual Congress is not as easy as flipping a switch.
Each chamber operates by its own rulebook. In the House, for instance, there are strict provisions that govern what exactly constitutes a hearing — rules that would need to be changed to allow committee chairmen to gavel in remotely. In a 230-year-old institution bound by precedent, even something as simple as determining whether a lawmaker is “present” would spur huge procedural questions.
The shift has been complicated by security issues about how to conduct sensitive business away from the Capitol — whether it’s voting or holding a conference call on popular software like Zoom, which has been proven susceptible to online hackers. Legal counsels in both parties have started exploring what might be permissible under current House rules.
Even before the pandemic ground the U.S. Capitol to a halt, some committees weren’t up to date on technology like streaming video. The Senate Appropriations Committee, for example, offers audio-only versions of its markups of multi-billion-dollar legislation. The Senate has also long drawn complaints from reporters for its blanket bans on cell phones and laptops from its chamber.
Senior lawmakers and aides in both parties say they’re skeptical rules could be changed quickly to revamp Congress’ ability to act remotely.
House leaders don’t want to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol to vote in person and are afraid at least one member would object if they tried to implement a rules change via voice vote. Just last week, a single Republican objected to efforts to pass the $2 trillion relief package by voice vote, forcing some 200-plus members to travel to Washington at the last minute.
“We want to make sure that we have debate [on bills.] … It’s something the speaker and I have talked about, and as well as the majority leader,” McCarthy said Thursday. “But right now, to change something, you’d have to go back and vote.”
Even if lawmakers wanted to hold hearings featuring Trump administration officials, it’s not clear they’d secure any testimony. The administration has said that it won’t be able to comply with congressional oversight requests at least through April, as officials are too busy overseeing efforts to combat the pandemic.
“This Administration is entirely focused on helping Americans while our Nation weathers this storm,” a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement to POLITICO, confirming the policy. Agencies have been instructed to work with congressional committees to postpone hearings “to prioritize their critical public health operations,” the spokesperson said.
For now, House committee leaders are trying to keep up work from afar, with chairs and staff continuing to keep in regular touch with the panel’s members — even if they can’t do public hearings.
“I think we need to make Congress as functional as possible,” said Rep. Tom Cole, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee. “There’s an old Woodrow Wilson saying, ‘Congress on the floor is Congress in exhibition. Congress in committee is Congress at work.’”
Some lawmakers are trying to get creative. House leaders are in talks about holding bipartisan roundtables, which would resemble hearings but wouldn’t require changing any rules. And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) held a call with Democratic chairmen Wednesday to brainstorm ideas.
Still, there’s wariness about how that would work — like whether to allow witnesses to testify, what kind of technology to use and the best way to ensure the meeting is “open to the public” like a regular hearing.
The House and Senate are scheduled to return on April 20, but it’s also possible that Congress could be out for even longer amid the pandemic.
And if hearings are suspended for a month or more, it could delay big items on the House’s to-do list this year, like annual spending bills and the Pentagon policy bill. Most committee heads believe they can get the work done largely without hearings and public testimony, though they acknowledge there is no way to get around markups, where legislation is actually voted on.
“I hate losing the hearings that we’ve lost in April, but the reality is, we can write the bill and I still see the same possibilities,” Cole said, referring to a marathon of hearings that accompanies each appropriations cycle. “I learn something in every hearing, but I don’t need the hearings to play a role in this process.”
There are also lingering concerns among rank-and-file members, particularly freshmen, who have seen regular order all but come to a halt as House and Senate leaders have drawn up trillions of dollars in new spending without a single hearing.
Many lawmakers say they’ve come to terms with the top-down process during a time of crisis, though several have voiced frustration that House and Senate leaders haven’t been more open to more creative approaches to governing.
“If we’re going to move fast and take care of the great needs that are growing by the day, there is some rationale of trusting committee leaders, leadership to consolidate ideas from all us,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).
“For now, that’s how it’s going to have to work,” Phillips said. “When we return — hopefully when this is long in the past — we should reassess how we debate and deliberate ideas.”
But there’s one area congressional leaders have shown no willingness to exploring in the near term: remote voting. Both Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have publicly dismissed the idea, with the speaker saying she this week didn’t want to waste time “on something that’s not going to happen.”
That hasn’t stopped the most prominent supporters of the idea from continuing to make the push.
“My hope is we’ll never have to use remote voting but we certainly ought to have it as a tool in case we find ourselves in a situation where we need to actually pass legislation,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who introduced a bipartisan bill to establish remote voting.
“My concern is that if we don’t have it, that the Congress will be left out. In other words, the legislative branch will not have its voice heard in terms of important decisions.”
Even without a fundamental change to institute remote voting, more minor attempts to make Congress more tech savvy could be challenging for some members.
Aides say they’ve been scrambling to help their bosses rapidly adjust to the new changes, like advising them when they’ve muted their line on a conference call.
Earlier this week, Pelosi was mid-sentence when she seemed to accidentally cut off a call with reporters. And after technical difficulties on a GOP conference call with reporters Thursday, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) sarcastically chimed in: “Love conference calls. Let’s do more of them.”
Kyle Cheney and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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