Remote Testimony Is a Major Upgrade for Congress

Pandemic safety rules allowed lawmakers in Washington to hear from a wider range of people across the country. That should be the new standard.

As a pandemic safety measure, the U.S. House of Representatives began in May 2020 to hold committee hearings remotely so that witnesses could testify from home rather than in a crowded hearing room. This allowed people of all backgrounds, not just those who already live near Washington or who are able to fly there on short notice, to have their say before Congress.

The results suggest this needs to become the new standard. After hearing from a broad range of speakers over the past year — people invited because of their relevant experiences and valuable perspectives, regardless of their proximity to Capitol Hill — I believe that continuing this practice is necessary to meet Congress’ responsibility to base our laws on public input.

Unfortunately, the House and Senate themselves bear little resemblance to the country we serve from an ethnic, economic and educational perspective. Polls routinely find that the American public feels Congress doesn’t listen to them or look like them. Many of my colleagues deride “the elites” even though the majority of members in the last Congress were millionaires, and their median net worth was greater than $1 million.

That wealth tends to insulate Congress from the financial barriers most people face for a trip to Washington on short notice. Last-minute flights are expensive, and many working people can't take time off work because their job won’t allow it or because they can’t afford to lose the income. This is just as true for scientific and technical experts as for anyone else.

As a first step in correcting this imbalance, we need to get into the habit of inviting more of the Americans whose lives we impact to testify in a formal setting, with the cameras rolling and the world able to watch in real time, regardless of their ability to appear in person for our convenience. Continuing remote testimony will help ensure that these experts can contribute.

There already is ample evidence that taking this approach during the pandemic has improved the quality of our witness panels and the relevance of the advice we receive. Here are just a few examples:

  • In an early test of the new system on May 13, 2020, the House Natural Resources Committee, which I chair, held a livestreamed forum titled Stepping Up: Communities Protecting Themselves and the Environment in the Pandemic Era. The speaker panel included Sharon Lavigne, the leader of a remarkable campaign to protect her community — the mostly Black “Cancer Alley” near Baton Rouge, La. — from a proposed new petrochemical project. In June, Ms. Lavigne was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Without her testifying remotely, the Committee likely would never have heard from her.
  • On May 4, two expert witnesses testified live from Hawaii at a subcommittee hearing on the state of coral reefs, an appearance made possible largely because of the time and money they saved on travel. A third witness from the University of Guam saved 50 hours and $2,000 in travel and lodging expenses. An in-person hearing probably wouldn't have included any of these witnesses despite them being leaders in their field.
  • On June 17, a subcommittee took testimony from the leaders of four Native American tribal governments in four states on the social and economic consequences of Congress failing to properly fund federal agencies that maintain schools, health care facilities and law enforcement offices across Indian Country. Imagine a scenario where those tribal leaders had to fly to Washington at their own expense, on the subcommittee's timetable, to testify in person, and the bigger picture becomes clear.

There is no partisan advantage in allowing remote testimony; it’s purely about good government. Whatever your political persuasion, you can agree that we need to end the practice of relying on a small network of polished, well-connected spokespeople to offer talking points instead of firsthand knowledge.

Yet even this straightforward notion has become politicized. In May, every House Republican sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to cease all remote committee proceedings because they are allegedly more burdensome and slower than in-person operations, and because the country wants to see Congress working face-to-face again. The disagreement encapsulates the larger point here: even if witness diversity requires a little extra effort on Congress’ part, the benefits far outweigh any minor inconvenience and will do more to strengthen public trust in Congress than a return to the old ways.

Members of Congress make decisions based on the information available. With climate change bearing down on us and economic inequality still on the rise, we need to take more responsibility for how we choose our information sources, and for what those choices say about who we’re really listening to.

Change comes to Congress slowly. In the early days of the pandemic, many argued it was impossible to incorporate remote proceedings into our legislative process. The past year has shown that the change is more urgent — and more possible — than the naysayers anticipated. We must now make remote testimony permanent.

Of the three branches of government, Congress is meant to be the one closest to the American people. If we want to live up to our ideals, a person's income level, location and social class should be irrelevant to the question of who best speaks for the merits of a policy idea.

By:  Raúl Grijalva
Source: Bloomberg Opinion