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As Republicans end remote testimony, Democrats worry about diversity

More than half of all witnesses last Congress appeared remotely

Remote testimony can boost witness diversity, Democrats argue, but Republicans are rolling it back. Above, Ways and Means members prepare for a hybrid meeting in 2021.
Remote testimony can boost witness diversity, Democrats argue, but Republicans are rolling it back. Above, Ways and Means members prepare for a hybrid meeting in 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 4:01 p.m. | Remote testimony saved Guam officials about 48 hours and nearly $2,000 in round-trip airfare for a one-hour hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee last year. It allowed a doctor to testify about female veterans’ access to medical care before the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and then perform surgery in Seattle. And it meant a wheelchair user could speak in a closed-door meeting without navigating air travel.

But as Republicans take control of the House, they are reversing many of the practices that rankled them during the pandemic. They have all but eliminated remote witnesses in the 118th Congress, to the dismay of Democrats still wanting to hear from people who can’t physically zoom to Washington.

Under the House rules package adopted on Jan. 9, federal government witnesses are prohibited from testifying remotely in committees. Nongovernment witnesses must appear in person, too — though the committee chair can ask Majority Leader Steve Scalise for written approval to waive the rule in cases of “extreme hardship or other exceptional circumstances.”

“Prior to 2020, committees had seamlessly conducted in-person business for decades,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, who now chairs the Natural Resources panel. “There’s no reason we can’t return to this precedent and still facilitate robust, bipartisan discussions that represent communities across America.” 

Leading Republicans have said they want committees to work in person because it boosts efficiency. Speaker Kevin McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment, but Westerman pointed to technological hiccups as one concern.

He also cited an incident in 2021 that gave him pause. Democrats invited nonprofit director Christopher Rincon to testify on preserving land in Texas, but after Republicans questioned some of his past tweets about Ivanka Trump and the border, Rincon left the virtual hearing before he was dismissed.

Democrats argue that the benefits outweigh the risks. Remote testimony leads to a wider range of voices, allowing Congress to hear from people with disabilities, limited funds and job restrictions. It also helps people who live in rural areas or overseas, said Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva. He worries that the new rule will stifle witness diversity.

“Having witnesses there to lend their experience and expertise to the members of Congress is vital, but it has to be representative of our nation,” the Arizona Democrat said. “You can facilitate this. It doesn’t have to be one way or another, as is being promoted by Mr. Westerman.”

Travel costs

According to a CQ Roll Call analysis of witnesses in all full committee hearings in the House during the 117th Congress, about 60 percent appeared remotely. Of those, about 85 percent were non-government witnesses, meaning they did not hold federal government jobs. Just in Westerman and Grijalva’s Natural Resources Committee alone, nearly every witness was remote.

While remote witness testimony was a new phenomenon meant to limit the spread of COVID-19, it had an unexpected upside: It eased the financial burden of traveling to appear before Congress. 

Most of the time, the government does not open its purse to help witnesses. Instead, they must pay their own way or seek out a third party to cover their travel expenses, hotel costs and lost wages.

Under the 118th congressional handbook printed by the House Administration Committee, witness reimbursement is an “extraordinary measure.”

According to a House Democratic aide, reimbursement is at the discretion of the staff and leadership of the committee, meaning the definition of need could vary. Ultimately, the committee chair is the one who authorizes the reimbursement. The practice is rare, said a senior Republican congressional aide.

The House Democratic aide provided an example from the 116th Congress. Veteran Elvis Norquay, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, testified to the House Administration Committee about Native American voting rights. The chair granted Norquay travel and lodging expenses at the government rate because he did not have access to a car and had experienced homelessness. 

A trip to Washington is not possible for everyone. “Congress doesn’t compensate witnesses for taking time off from work and their families to fly across the country on short notice to participate in hearings,” said a Democratic spokesperson from the Energy and Commerce Committee. “Republicans’ unnecessary restrictions on remote witnesses mean Congress will only hear more from the wealthy and well-connected.”

Outside the Beltway

In-person witnesses were not entirely absent in the previous Congress. Government personnel were willing to show up, especially in the Armed Services Committee, where more than 80 percent of its government witnesses came in person. Overall, however, only about a quarter of House witnesses were employed by the federal government.

In 2021, about half of hearings were fully virtual, but by 2022, three-quarters of hearings were hybrid, with some people showing up at the Capitol even as others turned on their cameras at home. 

Now, with the first committee meetings of the 118th Congress underway — all in-person — Democrats are crying foul. Some have tried and failed to amend the rules of their committees to bring back remote witnesses.

Among those Democrats was Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Mark Takano of California, who offered an amendment on Wednesday that sought to “elevate historically disenfranchised, unrepresented, or underrepresented veteran voices.”

Another was Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania on the Rules panel, who similarly framed it as a question of representation.

“Although we work in these amazing 18th or 19th century surroundings, it is the 21st century,” she said. “It’s critical that we hear from the best experts available, not just professional Beltway witnesses.” 

But Rules Chairman Tom Cole said the time for remote witnesses had already come and gone.

“We’re no longer under the emergency situation,” the Oklahoma Republican said, referring to the pandemic. “We could still do that if we have exceptional circumstances again, but we’re hopefully not going to have that situation.”

Due to an editing error, this report was corrected to accurately reflect an amendment offered by Rep. Mark Takano.

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