Four Strategies to Reopen Congress and Restore America’s Voice

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Recently, we called on Speaker Pelosi to establish a clear, safe, and effective plan for reopening the House of Representatives. This follows the White House and America’s governors releasing their own detailed plans for a phased reopening of society, and now, both the United States Senate and Democratic Speaker of the California State Assembly calling their members back into session.

In the interim, a bipartisan taskforce has been convened — on which we are all serving — to further explore ways in which Congress can operate during this challenging time. While differences remain, it has become clear through our initial meetings that all members of our taskforce share several fundamental beliefs.

First, the business of the People’s House is “essential work” that must not be sidelined or ground to a halt.

Second, there is intrinsic value in a Congress — a physical meeting of people and ideas — that should be dutifully guarded.

And third, any changes to centuries-old rules and precedents of the House should be done in a deliberate and bipartisan way.

As we enter this indeterminate period between outright mitigation and a return to normalcy, everyone recognizes that our typical ways of doing business will need to adjust. Simply put, Congress will look and feel different.

However, we believe there is a pathway forward that enables the House to fully perform its key functions without compromising our shared values or sacrificing bedrock norms.

To that end, we offer four strategies that should form the basis of any plan to reopen Congress and restore America’s voice. These strategies are based on the advice of public health professionals, as well as guidance from parliamentary experts with decades of combined House experience.

We believe embracing this approach would achieve the necessary balance between health and institutional concerns — and hopefully build a more resilient and productive legislative branch in the process.

Strategy 1: Modify Existing Practices and Structures

The Rules Committee majority staff report on voting options during the pandemic states: “By far the best option is to use the existing House rules and current practices” (emphasis original).

Already, Congress has demonstrated its ability to adapt and to do so responsibly.

Earlier this month, the Rules Committee successfully convened an in-person business meeting in accordance with health guidelines developed by the Attending Physician and Sergeant at Arms. Likewise, over 50 members participated in a hearing on COVID-19 response efforts hosted by the Committee on Small Business. And this week, the Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee will hold an in-person hearing on the coronavirus pandemic.

Beyond committee business, nearly 400 members came to the House Floor on April 23 in an orderly and physically distant fashion to record their votes on two consecutive measures, a process that Speaker Pelosi characterized as having been executed “fabulously.”

Moving forward, we should expand these protocols to reduce density and congestion in every facet of our work.

House office buildings and individual office floor plans should be assessed to provide new provisional occupancy levels — with an eye towards possible reconfigurations to accommodate physical distance.

Additionally, measures should be explored to engineer temporary controls or barriers in locations where physical distance is difficult to achieve, as is currently happening in grocery stores and other places of public accommodation across America. For example, plexiglass dividers could be installed in high trafficked areas, like security checkpoints, or possibly in committee hearing rooms along the dais to provide further separation between members.

Strategy 2: Employ a Phased Return with Committees

Just as our states are employing a phased reopening approach, Congress should do so as well — beginning with committees and subcommittees as the engines of regular order.

Currently, the average total membership of a standing House Committee is approximately 40 members, with average subcommittee membership in the teens.

Each committee should present an outline to the Majority Leader detailing their projected business meetings for the month ahead, along with estimated attendance levels.

Working backwards, this information could be used to generate a staggered business calendar, with rotating use of larger committee hearing rooms where necessary. Precedence should be given to bipartisan COVID-19 response measures and other high-priority legislative items, such as the National Defense Authorization Act, Water Resources Development Act, and FY21 appropriations measures.

By directing committees to focus on legislation that has bipartisan and bicameral appeal, we can make the most of each member’s time and effort, thereby making the House more productive.

This system would also ensure greater transparency and regular order for all members — as opposed to centralized decision-making by a select group of leadership and staff that reduces the role of representative to merely voting “yea” or “nay” on pre-drafted proposals.

At the start, we do not envision routine recorded votes occurring in the House every day or perhaps even every session week. Instead, our voting schedule should be reimagined in the near-term, with postponement authority providing a structure to queue up bills at the end of a week or work period.

Lastly, regular morning hour time should be restored so all members have the opportunity give one- and five-minute speeches from the House Floor, an essential forum that has not been available now for over a month.

Strategy 3: Deploy Technology in a “Crawl, Walk, Run” Progression

The rules change proposal introduced by Chairman McGovern would enable sweeping use of technology for every element of committee business.

This is concerning for a variety of reasons — many of which are catalogued in the Rules Committee majority staff report — including untested assumptions that members have “reliable, connected technology, knowledge of how to use that technology, access to round-the-clock technical support, …[and] secure connectivity with the capacity to transmit potentially large amounts of data,” just to name a few.

From a security standpoint, the House averages 1.6 billion unauthorized scans, probes, and malicious attempted network cyber-connections per month. Earlier this month, our colleagues experienced this kind of incident firsthand with hackers interrupting a House Oversight Committee video event multiple times.

In our view, technology should only be deployed in a “crawl, walk, run” progression. Before we rush to discard over 200 years of precedent, we should require that rigorous testing standards be met, ample feedback be provided, and bipartisan rules of the road be agreed upon and made public to truly safeguard minority rights.

We believe “hybrid” hearings — an idea initially proposed by Democrats on the taskforce — could serve as a useful proof-of-concept to consider, similar to the model currently being used in the United Kingdom to facilitate virtual question time in the House of Commons.

For the purposes of these hybrid hearings, in-person quorum requirements should remain in place (most committee rules require only two members be present to hear testimony), with allowances for committee and non-partisan support staff to guide the proceedings and troubleshoot any technical problems. For the reasons outlined above, virtual participation should not become the default — but should instead be reserved for members in at-risk categories or who are otherwise unable to travel to D.C.

Under this proposal, committees that regularly handle sensitive and classified materials, including Intelligence and Ethics, would still be required to meet in-person.

We cannot recommend using virtual platforms for committee markups, given the mountain of unanswered questions regarding how more complex and involved procedural maneuvers would work in a remote setting.

Strategy 4: Accelerate Active Risk Mitigation Practices

Thanks to the efforts of the Attending Physician, in coordination with the House Administration Committee, the fourth strategy has already been set in motion.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits — including gloves, facemasks, and alcohol-based hand sanitizers — have been provided to each member office and committee, with additional supplies available on-demand.

Hand sanitizing stations are now ubiquitous around the Capitol campus — including on the House Floor — while enhanced cleaning procedures have become the new standard, with areas ripe for surface contamination having been limited or removed.

Staffing has been kept to a minimum through continued use of teleworking procedures, while the Capitol remains open to only members, required staff, and credentialed press.

Even so, these mitigation practices can be accelerated in several key ways.

Measured screening procedures should be considered, consisting of either self-reported medical diagnostic assessments, at-home temperature monitoring, touchless thermal temperature checks at office entry points, or any combination thereof.

A uniform “return-to-work” policy — in accordance with existing CDC guidelines — should be adopted for any staffer experiencing signs of illness.

Finally, our ongoing and iterative testing regime should be scaled as test availability increases nationwide. This plan should progress to incorporate asymptomatic randomized testing, and eventually, FDA authorized rapid antigen tests.

Conclusion

We fully appreciate the extraordinary nature of the challenge before us. However, when it comes to fundamentally altering how the House operates — in this case, potentially abandoning the Capitol for the remainder of the 116th Congress under the introduced Democratic proposal — every avenue should first be explored that preserves enduring institutional rules while prioritizing member health.

As Chairman McGovern recently wrote, “decisions we make today will influence the choices made in this chamber 100 years from now.”

We agree — and firmly believe it is our job as leaders of our respective parties to ensure the most reasoned voices prevail on this critical matter, not simply the loudest ones.

This pandemic has claimed too many lives and livelihoods already. We must not allow the institution we are tasked with safeguarding to be the next.

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