Microsoft, Zoom and Former Lawmakers Hold Remote Hearing Test

Dozens of former congressional members are hosting a mock remote hearing Thursday to spotlight how Congress can continue its work online during the global coronavirus pandemic.

The goal of the mock event is to test the logistics and pitfalls of how a congressional hearing would work virtually, since the House and Senate are not scheduled to resume work in Washington until May 4. The pressure to allow more remote activities has mounted in recent days as Congress negotiates further rounds of relief funding to aid an economy crippled by social distancing efforts. With lawmakers at home, work on the legislative agenda as a whole has slowed.

The hearing will be hosted by an advocacy group and led by former Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). The witness list features representatives from Zoom Video Communications Inc. and Microsoft Corp., as well as the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency—Gen. David Petraeus—and others.

Neither Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have yet to embrace virtual hearings or remote voting. House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and House Administration Chairman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calf.) will provide an update on remote voting options during a House Democratic Caucus call Thursday.

Some panels, including the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, have hosted “paper” hearings in recent weeks where lawmakers and witnesses submit written questions and statements to a website. Thursday’s mock hearing will test video conferencing technology, but is a private event that will be shared later.

Remote Voting by Congress Technically Feasible If Leaders Agree

“Without a question, the technology exists now,” Baird said in an interview. Baird will lead the virtual event along with Inglis, who served as Baird’s ranking member during the 111th Congress on a House subcommittee. Baird has been working on continuity of Congress issues since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and is a consultant for Democracy Fund Voice, a nonprofit civic organization.

“There will have to be some adaptation of the tech and some adjustment by the members of Congress and their staff, but there’s no question that you can hold hearings that will be productive and informative right now,” he said.

Baird said they are using Zoom for the hearing, but consulted with multiple security experts following reports of privacy and security issues with the videoconference service. He also said the organizers are technology agnostic and hope to share lessons learned with other tech providers. “We’re following best practices in terms of how to secure the call itself,” he said.

Working Out Issues

So far, nearly sixty former members of the House and Senate have signed up to participate in the mock hearing being hosted in part by Marci Harris, CEO and founder of Popvox, a California-based startup that provides technology advice to Congress.

“Any time you’re trying a new technology, there are lot of issues that you could not possibly anticipate until you are using it,” Harris said in interview. She said she wants the panelists to hit technology and logistical problems “so that current members and staffers don’t have to.” The lessons learned will be shared with various House and Senate committee staff.

The first panel will feature Petraeus, the former CIA director under President Barack Obama and now chairman of the KKR Global Institute, discussing applications of remote technologies in the military and corporate world, Baird said.

The second panel will include a senior tech specialist from Microsoft and a federal sales executive from Zoom. And the third panel will include Chi Onwurah, a member of the U.K. Parliament; Daniel Schuman, policy director at the think tank Demand Progress; and Beth Noveck, director of New York University’s Governance Lab.

“If there is a possible problem, we want to suss it out, so that when we give advice about what can and should be done, it’s grounded in experience,” Schuman said in an interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rkern@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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