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Problem Solvers show how Congress can work from home with virtual floor debate

Bipartisan caucus used Zoom to host a mock floor session debating state and local aid

Two dozen members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus hosted a virtual floor debate on state and local funding Thursday, hoping to illustrate that the House can conduct official proceedings remotely. But the experimental session was not without a few technological hiccups.

Caucus members used the Zoom videoconferencing app to connect with one another for the mock debate, telecasting the proceedings to the public through Facebook Live.

Most of the problems seemed to occur with the Facebook Live feed cutting off even as the Zoom debate continued. The first video showing the beginning of the mock proceedings cut out after three-and-a-half minutes and a second after just 33 seconds. A third video remained functional through the end of the debate, which lasted an hour in total.

Members used a picture of an empty House floor as their Zoom background to set the scene, and in many ways, the mock session mirrored formal floor proceedings.

Other congressional caucuses and committees have held virtual hearings during the coronavirus pandemic. But the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group equally divided between Republican and Democratic members, was the first group to hold a virtual floor debate. All virtual sessions have been informal, since House rules do not yet allow for the chamber to convene remotely as a full body or in committees.

House leaders are examining options for remote committee proceedings and virtual voting but have said the latter is more complicated because of the procedures that govern floor debate, including the ability of members to offer surprise motions.

Rep. Dean Phillips presided over the Problem Solvers’ mock session using the same procedural phrasing he would if he were overseeing a debate on the physical House floor.

As he called the “special order hour of the Problem Solvers Caucus” to order, the Minnesota Democrat held up a gavel and banged it against something wooden that was not entirely visible from his camera’s view. His Zoom background showed a different angle of the House floor than the other members to reflect that he was presiding over the proceedings.

The Problem Solvers’ co-chairmen controlled the debate time for their respective parties — New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer for the Democrats and New York Rep. Tom Reed for the Republicans. Each party had 30 minutes to give virtual floor speeches, explaining their views on additional federal aid for state and local governments.

The issue has been one of several matters dividing the parties as the broader Congress contemplates another relief measure, but the Problem Solvers mostly agreed that additional funding is needed to help state and local governments. They offered different views about how aid might be structured, with several advocating various bills they’ve introduced or co-sponsored.

Democratic participants included Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Susie Lee of Nevada, Tom Suozzi of New York, Scott Peters and Jim Costa of California, Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, Brad Schneider of Illinois, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Ben McAdams of Utah and Darren Soto of Florida.

Republicans joining in included Reps. David Joyce of Ohio, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, John Katko of New York, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Mike Bost of Illinois, Fred Upton of Michigan, Don Bacon of Nebraska and Pete Stauber of Minnesota.

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Familiar but not the same

The men wore suits and the women wore dress clothes as they would on the House floor to comply with decorum rules. Not all were wearing their member pins.

But even with the House floor pictured in the background and members dressed for work, physical representations of the times were on display as well.

Upton and McAdams were sporting full beards that they’ve grown during their time away from the Capitol in quarantine — and in McAdam’s case, partly in the hospital being treated for COVID-19.

Houlahan delivered her remarks wearing headphones, which often provides for more seamless audio, and her hair was blowing back, perhaps from an unseen fan since the House floor background replaced what was actually behind her at home.

Schneider might have benefited from headphones as his audio cut in and out several times throughout his speech. Nonetheless, he said the virtual session was “an important demonstration that Congress like so many across the country can successfully adapt to the new realities of the pandemic and complete our work virtually while following social distancing guidelines for safety.”

The members mostly stuck to prepared remarks on the designated topic of state and local funding. A few made nods to the fact that they were debating virtually.

“I know all of us are really eager to be doing our jobs as legislators,” Herrera Beutler said. “And yes, we’ve been doing them from home. But we’re anxious to get back to be able to debate the policies and the ideas that help us forge the best solutions possible in this time of crisis.”

Bost said the virtual session was important to show constituents that members are still working to fight for their districts’ priorities.  

“We would hope that we would be able to come back and work for them in person, but it can be done this way,” he said.

‘The gentleman … should unmute’

The debate was not seamless (though neither are ones that occur on the floor). Members at times forgot to turn on their video or audio functions on Zoom.

“The gentleman from New York should unmute,” Phillips said to Reed, staying in character while uttering a direction no one presiding over the House floor would normally have to use.

Some functions of the House, like gaveling to alert a member that their time had expired, did not translate as well over Zoom.

“Is that you all knocking on me?” Gonzalez said as his speech was interrupted by a few dull bangs.

“That is me knocking on you, yes,” Phillips said.

Upton joked about the noise that other members might have picked up on during his time to speak.

“I would normally ask for regular order, but the noise you might hear in the background is not from the gallery but is from Michigan beginning to open up,” he said. “Yes, we have folks working to landscape their yards across the street. I’ve got a construction crew across the street as well. Those are good news.”

In a brief phone interview after the mock session, Gottheimer said he thought the virtual debate went well, despite the occasional technical hiccups, and served as a good example of how the House can operate remotely.

“I think it’s an example that we can be doing more of these and should be doing more,” he said.

The Problem Solvers are planning a similar virtual demonstration to show what how members could hold committee hearings or meetings remotely, Gottheimer said.

Gottheimer said he’s not wed to any particular technological approach. The Problem Solvers chose to use Zoom because they’ve been using it for meetings and the company has implemented measures, like passwords, to make the platform more secure.

“We’re technology agnostic,” Gottheimer said.

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