As Rep. Marcy Kaptur began Monday’s House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, she seemed completely unaware of the peril the crew of the USS Stingray was in.
“As this hearing is fully virtual, we must address a few housekeeping matters,” she said, as Lt. Commander Thomas Dodge guided his submarine toward their target. “The chair or staff designated by the chair may mute participants’ microphones when they are not under recognition for the purposes of eliminating inadvertent background noise.”
Unbeknownst to Kaptur and the other lawmakers participating in Monday’s hearing, the audio from a movie — 1996’s “Down Periscope,” starring Kelsey Grammer as a disliked Navy officer who leads a crew of misfits in hijinks on the high seas amid some wargames — was playing over the congressional livestream. As the meeting began, the critically disdained movie was reaching its climax.
“You watch yourself, Dodge. You are addressing a superior officer,” Bruce Dern’s Rear Admiral Yancy Graham says.
“No, merely a higher ranking one,” Grammer’s Dodge zings in response.
“We look forward to hearing from our attendees,” Kaptur then said, barely audible over the sound of torpedoes being launched.
The movie choice was surprisingly fitting for the hearing’s topic: members’ funding requests from the Appropriations subcommittee for energy and water. As Frank J. Mrvan, D-Ind., called for Army Corps of Engineers funds to help keep the waterways of Northwest Indiana navigable, the Stingray’s torpedoes struck its intended target.
After the movie ended, the hearing continued with Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., testifying over a soundtrack of “In the Navy” by the Village People.
And that’s when “Galaxy Quest” began.
“By Grabthar’s hammer, we live to tell the tale,” Alan Rickman’s Dr. Lazarus gravely intones as Kaptur introduced Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to speak.
About 10 minutes later, and 20 into the hearing, word got to Kaptur that something was up and she recessed the hearing. “Sorry to do this, this hasn’t happened before, but it’s a new age, so give us a couple of moments,” she said, with a laugh.
When the hearing resumed a few minutes later, the surprisingly excellent 1999 send-up of “Star Trek” was no longer running. Whoever had been playing the film during the livestream had, contra Tim Allen’s Commander Peter Quincy Taggart’s famous tagline, given up and surrendered on their late ’90s comedy binge.
Heard on the Hill reached out to subcommittee chairwoman Kaptur, D-Ohio, and ranking member Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, but neither responded immediately to questions about how this might have happened or what their favorite “Galaxy Quest” scenes are.
A spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee blamed the House Recording Studio. “While the hearing itself was free of any disruption, HRS apparently decided to add a movie soundtrack over the discussion of energy and water projects,” Evan Hollander wrote on Twitter.
When the hearing resumed, Hollander added, “And we’re back, this time sans Galaxy Quest.”
The whole thing was a technical error, said a spokesman with the Chief Administrative Officer a few hours later.
“In preparation for remote and hybrid hearings, the House Recording Studio tests various functionalities, including audio playback,” said David O’Boyle. “Due to a technical error, test audio began to run during the hearing broadcast. After this issue was identified, it was immediately fixed.”
While O’Boyle was unsure of the exact format of the films used to check livestreaming, he confirmed they were not VHS tapes.
The mid-meeting movie magic appears to have been first noticed by policy reporters like Politico’s Hannah Northey, who tweeted about it.
This is not the first technology snafu that’s bedeviled Congress as it has tried to work remotely during the pandemic. Like the rest of us, members have had to contend with spotty Wi-Fi, muted mics and errant noises. It was probably just a matter of time before someone piped in a movie. After all, even “Down Periscope” is more fun to watch than a committee hearing.
As the meeting came to a close, no one seemed to address the 800-pound Thermian in the room. “I think this was a great hearing,” was all Kaptur said as it adjourned.