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Senate appropriators might switch to virtual hearings

Shelby says hearings on Trump’s budget request could be done remotely

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby is open to the possibility of virtual hearings with Cabinet secretaries and agency heads.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby is open to the possibility of virtual hearings with Cabinet secretaries and agency heads. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Appropriations Committee could soon jump on the telework bandwagon.

Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Monday that the panel’s dozen subcommittees might hold virtual hearings with Cabinet secretaries and agency heads should that chamber enter an extended recess after passing a massive stimulus package to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we can work that out in a virtual manner,” the Alabama Republican said, when asked if he was planning to schedule the hearings that mark the beginning of the annual appropriations process.

[Calls for remote voting amid coronavirus pick up support]

The panel could also skip holding additional hearings altogether.

“We might not do the hearings. We’ll have to decide, ultimately, if we need to do the hearings,” Shelby said. “We don’t have to do the hearings.”

The committee could use other forms of communication to talk with the Trump administration about its budget request for fiscal 2021, which is slated to start Oct. 1. Such discussions likely wouldn’t be similar to the public, broadcast hearings the panel typically holds. Those hearings allow federal agencies to defend any proposed funding increases and give lawmakers an opportunity to question the executive branch about how it spent money approved during the previous fiscal year.

Lawmakers also regularly use the opportunity to defend their parochial interests and put the executive branch on notice about any changes in policy that might negatively affect their constituents.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has held several hearings already but was not particularly far into the process when the Senate turned its attention to legislation meant to reduce the global health and economic crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus.

[Redefining district work: House members opt to telework during coronavirus pandemic]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t announced any changes to the chamber’s schedule yet. It’s unclear whether the Senate will follow the House’s lead in limiting its time in Washington. House leaders have said the chamber will not return until a vote on the stimulus package is ready. It’s expected they will adjourn soon thereafter.

Should any recess last longer than a few weeks, it could push back when the Senate Appropriations panel can release and mark up its 12 annual funding bills.

While Shelby is floating the idea of doing hearings remotely, he does not intend to change any markup plans. “We’ve got a little time,” he said.

The House Appropriations Committee has held more hearings than the Senate panel but hasn’t scheduled any more since the global pandemic began. The panel didn’t have any process updates to share Monday, according to a committee spokesman.  

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