The House Armed Services Committee kicked off its 60th annual markup of the Pentagon policy bill unlike any other — in the larger Ways and Means Committee room with a dais full of socially distanced, masked members and a few who tuned in remotely.
The committee’s marathon deliberations on Pentagon policy have become an annual rite on Capitol Hill, with dozens of staff, reporters and lobbyists packing in to the Armed Services room in the Rayburn House Office Building for a brutally long debate on issues ranging from nuclear weapons to the lesser prairie chicken.
But in the year of the novel coronavirus, much of that audience stayed home, tuning in on the committee’s livestream.
“Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and its economic impacts, we still get our job done, and it’s incredibly important that we get that done,” Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in his opening remarks. “We are exercising our oversight as Congress over national security. It is enormously important that Congress does that.”
Smith wore a mask while giving his opening statement, but he later removed it while talking because his glasses kept fogging up.
Smith gave members, who were all required to wear masks, the permission to do the same while they were speaking.
Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the committee’s top Republican, objected to the remote participation of some members, saying that doing so “degrades the legislative process, especially today, where we sit for hours listening and learning from each other.”
Thornberry said one Republican on the panel, Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, was absent because his wife just had a baby. But, Thornberry said, he wouldn’t participate virtually.
Smith stressed that the only reason to tune in remotely was for the health of members during the pandemic. He asked members to mute themselves when not speaking and reminded them they need to be in front of the camera at all times, especially when voting.
Smith also reminded the panel at the outset that he had the ability to mute anyone who was remote, including if they went over their speaking time.
Last year’s markup spanned more than 20 hours, but Smith said at the outset that he did not plan to do that again. Come midnight, if it appears the committee needs another six or seven hours, they will adjourn and extend the markup into Thursday.
“I’m not going until 7 o’clock in the morning again,” Smith said to applause.
For the most part, the markup went smoothly and, at least through the afternoon, more rapidly than usual.
Subcommittee chairmen in particular drew praise for rapidly reading through large en bloc amendment packages.
“We should hire an auctioneer to read those,” quipped Smith.
There was a bit of a delay for those who dialed in to the markup, forcing Smith to pause between the ayes and the nays.
The panel was largely able to continue its work during floor votes, which now span nearly an hour.
At one point, the committee held a vote at the same time the House voted, requiring a juggling routine for staff.
Smith, however, was pleasantly surprised when there were only a few missing members several minutes into the committee vote.
“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” he said.
The defense bill, which sets Pentagon policy and prescribes spending levels, typically draws wide bipartisan support.
Last year, the panel was sharply divided over nuclear weapons, leading all Republicans to vote against the bill on the floor.
That did not seem to be the case this year, although Thornberry warned members against adding “extraneous issues” that could mar the markup process. “Everyone wants to hitch their wagon to us,” he said in his opening remarks.
Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, the ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, praised the bipartisan nature of the panel’s markup but had a similar warning about GOP support for the typically bipartisan measure.
“I am concerned divisive tendencies could prevail to the ruin of all,” Wittman said.
Issues such as renaming military bases honoring Confederate generals, for which President Donald Trump issued yet another veto warning early Wednesday, were saved for later.
Another hot topic: reports that Russia may have paid militants in Afghanistan to kill American troops.
Lawmakers kept their caffeine intake high, with many sipping on Diet Cokes even before lunch break. But it wasn’t clear by midafternoon whether the committee would go long enough for Thornberry to revive his tradition of sharing Rip Its, the drink of choice for many military personnel pulling all-nighters, with his colleagues.