Congress struggles to get to grips with technology

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Even if lawmakers wanted to hold hearings with officials from the Trump administration, it is not certain that they would get testimony. The administration has said it will not be able to comply with congressional control requests until at least April because officials are too busy overseeing efforts to fight the pandemic.

“This administration is all about helping the Americans while our nation is going through this storm,” a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement to POLITICO, confirming the policy. Agencies were asked to work with congressional commissions to postpone the hearings “in order to prioritize their critical public health operations,” the spokesman said.

For the time being, House committee leaders are trying to keep work at bay, chairs and staff continuing to stay in regular touch with panel members – even if they cannot hold public hearings.

“I think we need to make Congress as functional as possible,” said representative Tom Cole, the best Republican on the House Rules Committee. “There is an old saying from Woodrow Wilson:” The Congress on the floor is the Congress on display. Congress in committee is Congress at work. »»

Some legislators are trying to be creative. House leaders are currently discussing the holding of bipartite roundtables, which would look like hearings but would not require changing the rules. And majority leader in the House, Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Held a call Wednesday with Democratic presidents to brainstorm ideas.

Yet there is some mistrust as to how it would work – such as whether or not to allow witnesses to testify, the type of technology to be used and the best way to ensure that the meeting is “open to the public” like a regular hearing.

The House and Senate are scheduled to return on April 20, but Congress may also be absent during the pandemic.

And if hearings are adjourned for a month or more, this could delay the big items on the House’s to-do list this year, such as the annual spending bills and the Pentagon policy bill. Most committee leaders believe that they can do most of the work without public hearings and testimony, although they recognize that there is no way around the markups, where legislation is actually passed.

“I hate losing the audiences we lost in April, but the reality is that we can draft the bill and I still see the same possibilities,” said Cole, referring to a marathon of audiences that accompanies each cycle of credits. “I learn something at every hearing, but I don’t need the hearings to play a role in this process.”

There are also lingering concerns among members of the grassroots, especially first-year students, who have seen regular order almost come to a halt as House and Senate leaders have accumulated billions of dollars in funding. new expenses without a single hearing.

Many lawmakers say they have accepted the top-down process in times of crisis, although many have expressed frustration that House and Senate leaders have not been more open to more creative approaches to governance.

“If we want to go fast and meet the great needs that are growing day by day, there is a reason to trust committee leaders, leadership to consolidate the ideas of all of us,” said representative Dean Phillips (D -Minn.).

“For now, this is how it is going to have to work,” said Phillips. “When we come back – hopefully when it is in the past – we should reassess the way we debate and deliberate ideas. “

But there is one congressional leader who has shown no willingness to explore in the short term: remote voting. Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Publicly rejected the idea, saying she did not want to waste time this week “on something that would not happen” .

That didn’t stop the most prominent supporters of the idea from continuing to push.

“I hope we will never have to use remote voting, but we should certainly have it as a tool in case we find ourselves in a situation where we really need to pass a law,” said Senator Rob Portman. (R-Ohio). , which introduced a bipartisan bill to establish remote voting.

“My concern is that if we don’t have it, Congress will be left out. In other words, the legislature will not make its voice heard on important decisions. “

Even without a fundamental change to institute remote voting, more minor attempts to make Congress more tech savvy could be difficult for some members.

Aides says they went out of their way to help their bosses adapt quickly to new changes, such as advising them when they cut their line during a conference call.

Earlier this week, Pelosi was in the middle of her sentence when she appeared to accidentally interrupt a call with reporters. And after technical difficulties during a GOP conference call with journalists on Thursday, representative Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) Sarcastically replied, “I love conference calls. Let’s do more. ”

Kyle Cheney and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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