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Republicans say in-person Congress will help bipartisanship; not everyone agrees

‘They think bifocals are controversial,’ McGovern says

Chairman Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and ranking member Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., of the House Rules Committee.
Chairman Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and ranking member Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., of the House Rules Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Deborah Ross doesn’t like to miss hearings or markups, even if it means no sleep. 

The North Carolina Democrat recalled once, on a bipartisan CODEL to Japan, pulling an all-nighter to virtually attend a Judiciary Committee markup called at the last minute. “I was still voting at breakfast in Japan,” Ross said. “But my constituents’ voices were heard.”

But those were different times, and in the 118th Congress, that kind of virtual participation is gone.

Democrats controlled the House in Ross’ first term, and the country was still very much in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Party leaders tweaked House rules to allow members to show up remotely. Members sick with COVID-19 or concerned for their health could vote by proxy on the floor (though many exploited the loophole for nonmedical reasons) and could tune in virtually to committee meetings. Witnesses, too, could testify at hearings without physically appearing at the Capitol.

When the Democratic House majority evaporated, so too did remote work.

In addition to ending the much-pilloried proxy voting order, Republicans opted not to carry forward remote and hybrid committee proceedings in their rules package for this Congress. The move, they argue, will encourage bipartisanship and bring Congress in line with most of the rest of the country, which has returned to working in person.

“The COVID emergency is over, so I think the American people expect us to show up to work,” said Rules Chair Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. “Everybody else shows up to work. I think members of Congress should as well.”

Walking and chewing gum

Advocates say Republican leaders are missing the chance to modernize Congress and leaving themselves open to chaos in the face of another emergency.

Committee work can be hectic, long or downright tedious. With multiple committee assignments, lawmakers can be torn between clashing schedules or stuck in meetings that drag into the night. Ross, for one, remembers another Judiciary markup that lasted nearly 20 hours. Without the option to tune in virtually to meetings, she said there would have been times she was forced to choose which to attend and which to skip.

Ending remote work is a step backward, said Rep. Jim McGovern, who went from chair of the Rules Committee to ranking member.

“Republicans just seem to be oblivious to the fact that technology has advanced and that people can walk and chew gum at the same time,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “I think they think bifocals are controversial. The idea of utilizing technology to make it easier for more people, not just members, but witnesses — they find that to be shocking and somehow undesirable.”

The average House member serves on more than five committees and subcommittees, according to a 2020 analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center, most of which are squeezed into three working days per week when the chamber is in session. 

Cole, however, was unmoved when asked about the issue of conflicting committee meetings.

“We don’t have any problems that we haven’t had since 1789, so I think these things can be dealt with,” Cole said.

COVID concerns linger

There is at least one new problem with which lawmakers in 1789 did not have to contend: COVID-19.

If another emergency were to strike, Congress would need to act quickly, said Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, a nonprofit focused on government transparency. He wonders about future pandemics, natural disasters and political unrest.

The end of remote or hybrid committee work is a “dangerous loss of flexibility,” Schuman said.

Cole and other Republicans say the threat of COVID-19 has diminished. President Joe Biden has announced plans to end the public health emergency in May, long after other safety protocols like mandatory masking fell by the wayside.

But some Democrats still fear for their health and worry about the implications of Republicans’ new rules.

“What I worry about, given their slim majority, is you’re going to have Republicans who come down with COVID show up at committee hearings and show up on the floor, unmasked and exposing people to the virus,” McGovern said. “And I think that’s irresponsible.” 

For certain members, it could have serious consequences.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., is undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed in late 2022 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, and is one of the few members still masking. At the organizational meeting of the House Oversight Committee, of which Raskin is ranking member, he and other Democrats pushed for an amendment to the panel’s rules to allow members to virtually participate in the event of “unavoidable or uncontrollable health conditions.”

Republicans on the panel voiced their sympathy and support for Raskin before unanimously batting down the proposal.

Polarization solution?

McGovern, who helped write the original guidelines for proxy voting, is quick to acknowledge that members exploited aspects of Democrats’ remote rules. 

On the last big-ticket item of the 117th Congress, for example, more than half of the House voted by proxy. It was the day before Christmas Eve, and members were rushing to get out of town as they finished the $1.7 trillion omnibus package.

But McGovern said Democrats likely would have explored ways to tighten the rules had they retained control of the chamber. Ross, too, said she would have welcomed a stricter interpretation of proxy voting and virtual participation.

“It’d be fine with me if they came up with rules that say you can’t do it from the side of the pool at your personal vacation,” Ross said. “But I think to say that you can never do it is a disservice to your constituents.”

Republicans have publicly applauded the return to in-person work, and Cole tersely quashed the notion that members of his party secretly like to work remotely and have been grumbling behind the scenes. Getting lawmakers back to talking face to face is crucial, he said, saying that proxy voting and remote committee hearings have contributed to hyper-partisanship.

McGovern is not convinced.

“Let’s not exaggerate the impact that operating virtually has had on the polarization of Congress,” McGovern said. “It has less to do with remote committee hearings and more to do with the fact that we’re dealing with Republicans who are threatening members online. … We’re dealing with a majority of the Republican conference that voted to overturn free and fair elections. And we’re dealing with Republican members who are rallying to the cause of those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.”

“With all due respect, I think that has more to do with the polarization in Congress than remote committee hearings and not being in the same room together.”

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