Here’s how some committees are working during the coronavirus shutdown

House rules do not allow for virtual hearings

House committees are staying busy while not being able to hold in-person hearings during the long recess caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House committees are staying busy while not being able to hold in-person hearings during the long recess caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 13, 2020 at 6:00am

House committees are staying busy making information requests, reviewing documents and eyeing less-formal proceedings to get around rules requiring in-person hearings during the long recess caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Committees can hear from live witnesses in “non-hearing” events like briefings, round tables or panels, and some continue to issue seek information and letters from the agencies they oversee. But logistical difficulties holding teleconferences, platform security concerns and other issues are pushing some to figure out ways to continue oversight without holding public meetings.

[‘Paper hearings’ replace committee staple in the Senate]

Guidance on virtual hearings circulated by the House Rules Committee and obtained by CQ Roll Call states hearings require “physical presence.” House rules simply do not allow for virtual hearings where lawmakers typically make motions, mark up bills or hear sworn testimony and can’t be changed until the body reconvenes.

“Any changes to the rules would require unanimous consent or members traveling back to Washington and voting in person,” said House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

The House will not reconvene until April 20 at the earliest, but an official date has not yet been set.

Zoom hearings?

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., suggested his panel is exploring the possibility of holding virtual meetings with witnesses on topics that include identifying worldwide security threats and an inquiry into the recent firings of intelligence community inspectors general.

“I think that we can and I think that we will, but they may take the form of a virtual hearing, where we will do essentially a Zoom hearing,” Schiff said in an interview with the “Skullduggery” podcast.

When committees reconvene, the meetings can be submitted into the official record through unanimous consent or a committee vote, the guidance said. Some municipalities abandoned using the Zoom platform after people reported conferences being disrupted by inappropriate images and threatening language.

Schiff’s spokesman, when asked to elaborate on the California Democrat’s plans for what the proceeding would look like, declined to elaborate.

House Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan called on Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney to abandon using Zoom for Oversight business.

“Zoom has become a household name during the COVID-19 pandemic as users are hosting everything from workouts to virtual happy hours on its platform,” the Ohio Republican said in a letter sent Friday to the New York Democrat. “Unfortunately, such ubiquity has also exposed concerns with Zoom’s cybersecurity protocols.”

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Documents and letters

House committees have continued sending requests for information and reviewing documents to continue working on important issues, even though they may not be holding meetings.

Committee heads sent a letter Friday condemning President Donald Trump for his apparent retaliatory actions against inspectors general and requesting input from the IG Council on legislative proposals on how to increase autonomy and protect other inspectors general from retaliation.

The letter, led by Oversight Chairwoman Maloney, included signatures from more than a dozen House chairmen and chairwomen.

A spokesperson for the majority in the House Judiciary Committee said the panel has sent many letters to agencies regarding a wide range of issues including price gouging, the handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and in the immigration system, the consolidation of the market for medical devices — such as ventilators — and the right to vote safely during a pandemic.

“Committee staff are in contact with relevant agencies regarding possible briefings. We are in the process of determining the safest and most efficient way, under House rules, to utilize technology to further our oversight capabilities during this unprecedented time,” the spokesperson said.

There’s no requirement compelling members of the minority to attend meetings, and committees can’t use subpoena powers to compel witnesses.

A Republican source with direct knowledge of the Judiciary Committee said some minor rumblings about potential tele-briefings have occurred but no official plans are in the works.

Republicans on Judiciary would prefer to hold meetings in person, and will continue investigations and oversight from afar until the pandemic has waned.

“Ultimately, telework can’t go on forever. At some point members will have to return to Washington and get to work,” the source said. “Republicans are looking forward to that day happening soon.”