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Double-booked: Busy budget season highlights scheduling woes

Some lawmakers are double- or triple-booked for committee attendance

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., used a double-booking of his committee appearances on Tuesday to compare answers by Cabinet secretaries on the coronavirus.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., used a double-booking of his committee appearances on Tuesday to compare answers by Cabinet secretaries on the coronavirus. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Even the best scheduler on Capitol Hill can’t make it possible for a lawmaker to be in two places at once. In weeks packed with hearings, like this one, that’s exactly what members’ schedules require.

A CQ Roll Call analysis of committee schedules and rosters shows that at least 10 House appropriators are expected to be at two simultaneous hearings on Thursday. That only accounts for Appropriations subcommittees, not meetings of other panels that lawmakers are on.

President Donald Trump’s budget was introduced this month, and this week began the slew of officials heading to Capitol Hill to promote the administration wish list, with Cabinet officials appearing at hearings in authorizing committees and Appropriations panels. The analysis focused on appropriators because this week a slate of high-ranking witnesses made lawmakers’ choices of which hearings to prioritize, which to skip and which to pop into even harder.

At least six Democrats and four Republican appropriators are double-booked, but two won’t have much of a choice. Rep. Tim Ryan, chairman of the Legislative Branch Appropriations subcommittee, will lead a 1 p.m. hearing on the Library of Congress budget and won’t be able to put down the gavel to catch the simultaneous Military Construction-VA Appropriations hearing on electronic health records.

[Tim Ryan was once a star quarterback, with Congress as his backup]

Ryan said Wednesday he’ll be counting on staffers and friends on the Military Construction-VA panel to fill him in.

“You want to be everywhere, but you can’t,” he said.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the top Republican on the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, will be on the dais for a 10:30 a.m. hearing with testimony from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. It is unlikely to wrap up in time for him to participate in the 11 a.m. Defense Appropriations hearing with Gen. Tod D. Wolters, U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

While this week marked the beginning of a blitz of budget and spending hearings, Rep. Derek Kilmer said it’s not an isolated problem.

“I don’t know that Appropriations is unique in the conflicts that it has,” Kilmer told CQ Roll Call, acknowledging the high season for spending action is “undeniably challenging.”

Kilmer is chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, tasked with making recommendations to improve the workings of Capitol Hill.

His panel in late 2019 held a hearing on scheduling in which the panel’s top Republican, Tom Graves of Georgia, noted he was supposed to be in three hearings: the Modernization panel and two Appropriations subcommittees. Other members had similar tales.

[Modernization panel mulls overhaul of congressional calendar]

Members lament that conflicts prevent their full participation in hearings because they have to scoot out and make an appearance at another hearing. The practice results in lawmakers asking witnesses questions that they’ve answered multiple times over but the lawmaker missed earlier.

“Part of the benefit of serving on a committee is being able to develop content expertise,” he said.

Lawmakers build knowledge by preparing for hearings, but also “actually being there when the committee meets and hearing the questions from your colleagues and hearing the responses from the witnesses,” Kilmer said.

The Bipartisan Policy Center analyzed the overlapping schedules of House panels on Sept. 19, 2019, finding that between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. that day, 19 committees or subcommittees scheduled hearings or markups. That day there were eight committees holding meetings in which more than half of members had conflicts with other committee commitments.

Kilmer joked that he has “three clones” that help him navigate overbooked scheduling. But in reality, it takes a lot of preparation and staff work.

“You get your pre-reading and you prep for all of them with the knowledge that if something runs a little long with one of your committees, you may only be there for a fraction and the other,” he said.

The Modernization panel has not yet put out recommendations for the House schedule, but Kilmer said the double- and triple-booking of committee meetings is high on the list of considerations.

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Ryan thinks there could be a technological solution that could at least decrease them in a systematic way.

“There’s got to be some way to figure out some algorithm with everybody’s committees and then let a computer figure this out,” Ryan said.

Sen. John Kennedy on Tuesday used a double-booking to make a point, comparing two Cabinet secretaries responses’ to the same question in almost real time. The Louisiana Republican sits on both the Labor-HHS-Education and Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittees, which held hearings with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Tuesday. Kennedy pingponged between the two.

The coronavirus was a central topic at both hearings, and Wolf told Kennedy a vaccine would be ready within “several months.”

“You’re telling me we’re months away from having a vaccine?” Kennedy asked. “That’s your testimony as head of the Department of Homeland Security?”

“That’s what I’ve been told by HHS and CDC, yes,” Wolf responded.

Kennedy made his way to the HHS hearing and posed the same question to Azar, who said a vaccine could be possible within a year, at the earliest.

Kennedy told Azar that “about 10 minutes ago” Wolf testified about a different timeline.

“That’s never happened in human history,” Azar said about Wolf’s vaccine testimony.

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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