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Five New Recommendations for Virtual Congressional Hearings

While much of the country has already figured out how to conduct business remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress is moving slowly and erratically to implement plans for how it will operate. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped former members of Congress and other experts from trying to help the legislative branch figure things out. With the help of their experience, we have identified several recommendations for Congress to consider as it grapples with the challenge.

On Thursday, April 16th, more than 60 former members of Congress participated in POPVOX’s second mock remote congressional hearing. Co-hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, it was both a model and a fact-finding exercise.1 The virtual hearing modeled what a real congressional hearing might look like in this format, and the topic it explored was focused on how to put into practice remote operations in the current Congress. BPC previously released six recommendations for Congress based on the first mock hearing.

Former members were joined by retired Army General David Petraeus and representatives from Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and the governments of the United Kingdom and Spain. These witnesses testified to their experiences as government officials conducting business remotely, videoconferencing software, and the options that are available to Congress right now.

Without some form of remote deliberation in place, Congress won’t be able to operate as the fully functional legislative branch this country needs in a crisis. Mock remote hearings like these help to show Congress ways that it can be sometimes muted, but never silenced, during this pandemic. Here are the next five recommendations Congress will need to keep in mind if they move towards remote operations:

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  1. Some, but not all, congressional business will need highly secure channels.

    Retired General David Petraeus’ testimony outlined the extensive use of teleconference software in the military. Petraeus routinely conducted top-secret, remote, teleconference briefings with the president, entire National Security Council, and members of Congress on some occasions. He cautioned that “those sessions occurred over secure video teleconference links conducted from secure compartmented intelligence facilities and requiring extraordinary bandwidth, extensive communications infrastructure, and numerous skilled personnel.”

    That said, Petraeus stated that, with appropriate security measures in place, he sees no reason why similar technology could not be used by Congress and government agencies. Additionally, for congressional proceedings not involving highly sensitive or classified information, security concerns are much less important. Each member is not going to need a SCIF installed in their home or district office.

    General Petraeus also noted the high broadband requirements of secure teleconference channels. Congress must account for the varying levels of internet and broadband that members have access to, especially for representatives in rural areas whose connectivity may be limited.

  2. Trained technical personnel will need to be present on each call.

    At one point in the hearing, Chairman Baird called upon Ms. Maria López Moreno de Cala, Director of the International Department of the Congreso de los Diputados (the lower house of Spain’s legislature), to begin her witness testimony. However, Moreno de Cala experienced audio issues and could not be heard. While this kind of technical challenge easily could have disrupted the hearing in other circumstances, Chairman Baird proceeded to call on the next witness while trained technical personnel worked with Moreno de Cala behind the scenes. By the time the other witness had finished, all audio problems were resolved and Moreno de Cala provided her testimony without interruption.

    From an audience perspective, this was a seamless transition: staff was able to work quickly behind the scenes to address a technical problem, never interrupting the flow of the hearing. In doing so, Chairman Baird and staff together demonstrated the essential role that trained technical personnel should play in any remote deliberations that Congress considers.

    It is not clear, however, that the congressional workforce is currently trained and capable of carrying out this function. Additional personnel may need to be hired for committees and current employees may need immediate and intensive training.

  3. Congress must work with the private sectors to develop virtual deliberation platforms.

    The second witness panel included representatives from two leading teleconference providers: Doug Deitterick, Senior Technical Specialist supporting the Federal Government and Department of Defense at Microsoft; and Rick Drum, Head of Federal Sales at Zoom. Both pitched the benefits their respective companies can offer Congress, with Microsoft touting its superior security reputation and Zoom highlighting its user-friendly interface and ongoing commitment to security improvements.

    Above all, what became clear is that major technology companies are ready and eager to work with Congress to develop a remote deliberation platform – Congress must simply take them up on it. Working with leading technology companies would allow Congress to ensure both its feature needs (for instance, having a private chat feature where members could talk with their staff out of the public eye) and security needs are met. Congress will not be able to do this quickly on its own.

    Rep. Rodney Davis, Ranking Member of the Committee on House Administration, exhibited this forward-thinking approach in a recent letter he sent to Philip G. Kiko, the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. The letter requested that Kiko explore the possibility of enrolling the House in “Apple Business Manager, a web-based portal through which the CAO can approve and offer House-specific apps for use exclusively by Members and staff.” It is exactly these kinds of innovate partnerships with private technology firms that will allow Congress to prosper during this uncertain time.

  4. Clear rules must be developed to guide questioning periods.

    Over 60 former members of Congress joined Thursday’s call, but only a small handful got the opportunity to ask a question. To do so, the former lawmakers submitted their questions to the hearing’s chair, Rep. Brian Baird. Chairman Baird then called upon members to ask their questions to witnesses live.

    The chair’s ability to control how members’ questions were asked in this mock setting raises concerns about a real committee chair refusing to recognize a member due to partisan or subject matter bias. Especially for larger committees, clear rules must be developed indicating which members are able to ask questions and when. This will help to remove any appearance of bias towards or against Members or their question.

  5. Congress should look to state and international governments for best practices.

    The mock hearing’s third witness panel was comprised of representatives from the Spanish and United Kingdom governments, just two of the many countries to implement some form of remote deliberation: UK Member of Parliament Chi Onwurah and Director of the International Department of the Congreso de los Diputados Maria López Moreno de Cala.

    MP Onwurah and López Moreno de Cala each shared the difficulties they faced in finding consensus around remote deliberation in their respective parliaments. MP Onwurah shared that consensus was achieved largely through actively listening to the fears and concerns of those dissenting to remote operations. Furthermore, she noted that what convinced many members was reminding them of their responsibility to heed the voices of their constituents, a responsibility that could not be met without remote operations. Onwurah stated that Members of Parliament, and of Congress, must show that they can be as adaptable as those they represent: “No crisis should silence the voices of the people.”

    Congress should look to those like MP Onwurah and Director López Moreno de Cala for considered and informed guidance when considering remote deliberation alternatives.

In the words of retired General Petraeus, “Like the military, members of Congress have to show up for duty.” Now more than ever, a functional Congress is essential, and Congress must consider remote ways to continue operating during a global pandemic. Fortunately, this mock hearing demonstrated that Congress can feasibly get to work remotely.

End Notes

1 In addition to BPC, the event was co-organized by the following individuals and organizations:

  • Beth Simone Noveck, Professor, New York University and Director, The Governance Lab
  • Brian Baird, Continuity Program Lead, Democracy Fund Voice
  • Daniel Schuman, Policy Director, Demand Progress
  • Lorelei Kelly, Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, Georgetown University
  • Marci Harris, CEO and Cofounder, POPVOX
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