Virtual Hearings on Capitol Hill Likely to Outlast the Pandemic

  • Video hearings lead to more diverse witnesses, lawmakers say
  • In-person negotiations on legislation still preferred by some

The virtual congressional hearing, born of necessity during the height of the pandemic, is likely to become a permanent fixture on Capitol Hill, with leaders saying it allows them to solicit views from a more diverse and broader array of people.

“It allows for us to get better, more qualified witnesses because they don’t have to travel,” said Small Business Chair Nydia Velázquez(D-N.Y.) in an interview. “It really is an added benefit to the work we need to do in the committee.”

Testifying in person was previously reserved for those either living in D.C. or able to take the time off of work to hop a last-minute flight. Details of how virtual hearings would function in a post-pandemic Congress have yet to be worked out, though lawmakers are now discussing the telehearing format.

Photographer: Greg Nash/The Hill/Bloomberg
Lawmakers are likely to continue virtual hearings, saying it allows for a broader range of witnesses. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter Inc., testifies remotely during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Oct. 28, 2020.

Committees have used the virtual format to hear from those who couldn’t otherwise testify in person, such as those living internationally or who don’t have the funds or health to come to Washington. A House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing featured testimony from cancer patients, and the House Natural Resources Committee was able to hear from the governors of the five U.S. territories at one hearing — which otherwise would have been nearly impossible logistically.

Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in an emailed statement that he and other lawmakers “need to hear directly from the people most in need of federal assistance, and allowing remote testimony is one of the best ways to do that.”

Virtual hearings also have some support among Republicans. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Rules Committee and a senior appropriator, said in an interview there’s a “developing consensus that virtual makes sense for witnesses” because the result is higher quality testimony.

Diverse Witnesses

Congress previously struggled with diversity of those appearing before panels.

The Tri-Caucus made up of the Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses announced in late 2019 they would begin tracking witness diversity as their”communities have been marginalized or ignored during important policy making processes.”

The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion created in 2019 with a focus on the Capitol Hill workforce was also asked to study the best way to survey the diversity of witnesses at hearings.

No findings have been released.

Lawmakers haven’t decided if the virtual option will be extended for high-level officials or corporate executives, whose appearances in front of Congress are often newsy, closely watched events. Also unclear is whether members will be able to attend hearings virtually after the pandemic.

House Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said members need to be in the room together to work on legislation.

“When you’re with the screen, everyone is listening and it’s very formal,” she said in an interview. “It’s easier when you’re in person to make negotiations work in a positive way.”

Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said while she previously thought lawmakers needed to be in the room together, her opinion shifted after members of her committee who were recovering from surgeries were able to participate virtually.

“There are reasons why people can’t show up on any given day, but they can lie in bed recuperating and still be involved,” she said in an interview. “I’m sympathetic to that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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