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Testing and troubleshooting are key to ‘Virtual Congress’ task force effort

Bipartisan effort draws cautious praise after two meetings

From left, Reps. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Elaine Luria, D-Va., wear face masks as they wait to do their TV stand-ups outside the Capitol on Thursday before the House passed the $483.4 billion economic relief package.
From left, Reps. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Elaine Luria, D-Va., wear face masks as they wait to do their TV stand-ups outside the Capitol on Thursday before the House passed the $483.4 billion economic relief package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Two meetings of the bipartisan Virtual Congress Task Force yielded a go-ahead order for House committees to use videoconference technology for low-stakes roundtables as a way to troubleshoot concerns with the platforms — but there are still extensive issues to sort out.

The six-member task force, born out of partisan friction over a Democratic proposal for proxy voting, met in person on Capitol Hill last week and via the Microsoft Teams videoconferencing system Tuesday.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday’s meeting included discussion of the testing and troubleshooting needed for different platforms that could be adopted by the House for remote proceedings.

“Today’s call was an example of how effective remote work in the House can be,” the Maryland Democrat said Tuesday. “As a result of today’s meeting, we are encouraging all House committees to hold remote roundtables to further test these new platforms.”

Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, ranking member of the House Administration Committee, told CQ Roll Call that Tuesday’s meeting went well, both in terms of bipartisan discussion and technology.

Davis and other House Republicans said last week that they were cut out of the process ahead of a planned vote on changing House rules to allow for proxy voting. The Democratic-led proxy voting push was later put on hold as the bipartisan panel was created to explore options for remote proceedings in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

[House Democrats punt on proxy voting plan]

‘Crawl, walk, run approach’

A week later, after two meetings of the task force, a slow and steady bipartisan effort seems to be moving forward.

“I’m confident that we’re working in a collaborative way with the Democrats,” Davis said in a Tuesday interview following the videoconference.

“We can find a way to find that sweet spot for technology, and at the same time address many members’ concerns about upsetting precedent that the House has had for a few hundred years,” he added.

Hoyer and Davis are joined on the task force by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Rules ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. Each were in their home states for Tuesday’s call, according to Davis.

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The group heard from House officers including Chief Administrative Officer Philip G. Kiko, who is in charge of technology systems and cybersecurity for the chamber. Even lawmakers who are urging leadership to adopt digital solutions for remote deliberation and voting acknowledge that House proceedings would be a ripe target for outside actors and are invested in ensuring the systems are secure.

McGovern, in a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday, stressed that House Democrats are looking for a balance between digital solutions and appropriate protections. As Rules chairman, the Massachusetts Democrat spearheaded the push for proxy voting that was put on hold last week.

“Technology has changed considerably in the 231 years since the first Congress met. I am confident we can develop solutions that are not only constitutionally sound, but also safe, secure and transparent,” McGovern wrote.

Davis said the agreement to first have committees use videoconference platforms for roundtables, before official hearings or markups, is the right choice for a slow and steady approach to testing systems for remote operations.

“We’ve got to take a crawl, walk, run approach to implementing some of these procedures or implementing some of these new technologies,” he said.

In addition to troubleshooting, he stressed that using the platforms for lower-stakes meetings, especially with no votes involved, allows rank-and-file members to participate and give feedback on their experience.

“Anyone who thinks that we can immediately go to any technology that’s out there, have it work with the House network, that is subject to 1.6 billion hack attempts a month, and at the same time, go immediately to voting with this … I think that’s unrealistic,” Davis said.

But Hoyer would like to see technology eventually facilitate a continuation of full-service committee business, including votes on legislation.

“My objective would be that we agree upon a process that committees could effectively do all of their work virtually,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I hope we will achieve for committees, so committees can have hearings, can have markups, can report out bills, and can do all the work that they would do if they were sitting in the same room together.”

Davis said the House Administration Committee is planning a mock-up later this week, discussing tests that the CAO’s team has run and what the highlights and trouble spots with different technologies might be. The panel has oversight authority over the CAO, Office of the Clerk and other House departments that will be central to implementation of any systems.

The Progressive Caucus is scheduled to hold what it calls a virtual hearing Wednesday afternoon on efforts to expand the workshare program within unemployment insurance to more states and businesses, along with legislation on a universal basic income proposal. That will be broadcast live on their Facebook page, for the public and media to view. Lawmakers, witnesses and others actively participating in the hearing will be using Zoom.

The event is not a traditional congressional hearing like that of a House committee, but the group’s effort illustrates the motivation among lawmakers to keep deliberating among themselves, with experts and broadcasting the process to constituents.

The Progressive Caucus also sent a letter Wednesday asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Hoyer to put in place some type of remote voting ahead of any action on another package of coronavirus relief legislation.

“We urge you to work with us to find a way for Congress to safely vote on both the proxy voting proposal and a CARES-2 package as soon as possible,” wrote co-chairs Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis. “We must find a way for members of Congress to vote on issues of critical national importance while protecting public health.”

Proxy vote ahead

Pelosi said Wednesday that while bipartisan work continues on exploring options for remote operations in the House, proxy voting is still on the table, despite GOP opposition. “I think that the consensus is that there will be a vote on proxy voting whether Republicans join or not is going to be up to them,” she told reporters.

Pelosi said there are “serious considerations” about how to hold committee meetings at this time and emphasized that the House would have to vote to allow official hearings to be held remotely.

But she said that committee action could resume as soon as next week, citing a House Appropriations hearing scheduled for May 6 and a possible Small Business Committee meeting next week.

“Chairmen may decide to have meetings next week,” she said. “There could be meetings of everyone here depending on the size of the committee, or virtual or hybrid.”

Not the new normal

Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that any changes to House operations, including proxy voting or remote deliberations, would only be used in extraordinary circumstances, like the current pandemic.

McGovern reiterated that any effort from Democrats or from the task force’s bipartisan work would not lead to a “new normal” where lawmakers stop gathering in person altogether.

“I’m not suggesting in any way changing the way we operate on a daily, routine basis — only during extraordinary emergencies such as the one we are facing now. What we are talking about should be the exception, not the norm,” he wrote in the Post.

Hoyer announced Tuesday that the House would not be returning to Washington on May 4 as previously planned, citing recommendations from the Capitol’s attending physician. Last week, the full House voted on the latest coronavirus aid package under new procedures to enforce social distancing and limit interaction during the vote.

[House not coming back to Washington next week after all, Hoyer says]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is holding firm that his chamber will return May 4, saying the Senate “will modify routines in ways that are smart and safe.”

But Sen. Chris Van Hollen is asking for more details on the precautions. The Maryland Democrat raised concerns not only about senators, but about staffers, Capitol Police, and custodial, maintenance and food service workers in the Capitol complex, many of whom are his constituents in Maryland.

“Will the Senate follow protocols, as the White House has, for temperature checks or rapid testing of staff and press in the Capitol complex? What impact would the use of tests for our return have on the overall capacity in the region? Staggered voting times on the Floor of the Senate might help protect us, but it does nothing for the staff at the Sergeant at Arms, Capitol Police, and Architect of the Capitol who support us and still puts the staff on the Senate Floor at risk,” Van Hollen wrote in a letter to McConnell on Wednesday.

Both the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms announced earlier this week that the coronavirus-related restrictions on access to the Capitol and House and Senate office buildings have been extended through May 16, including the suspension of tours and the closure of the Capitol Visitor Center. Only members, staff and credentialed press are permitted access to the Capitol and office buildings.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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