Technical difficulties mar several remote House hearings

The House’s venture in remote committee work during the coronavirus pandemic hit a bump Wednesday as technical issues rendered three committee hearings unintelligible to streaming viewers and forced one into recess.

GOP lawmakers seized on the tech problems, arguing they illustrated a need to return to in-person work at the Capitol.

The YouTube live streams of the Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee, the Ways and Means Committee and the Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations subcommittee all encountered glitches starting around 1 p.m.

The Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on racial disparities in COVID-19 got underway 25 minutes late due to technical issues, according to a tweet by subcommittee ranking member Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas).

Then, after about 50 minutes into the hearing, the video and audio feeds from lawmakers and witnesses became increasingly unintelligible, with the issues persisting for about 40 minutes.

Committee members seemed unaware of the problem and it did not appear to affect communication between the members and witnesses, who were all using the Cisco Webex platform. Multiple commenters on the YouTube live stream, however, said they had contacted the committee’s office to alert staff of the issues.

A YouTube stream of the Ways and Means Committee hearing, which focused on testimony from U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, was also garbled by a poor connection for roughly 45 minutes.

A Ways and Means Committee spokesperson said they were “told it’s a House-wide bandwidth issue.”

A C-SPAN feed of the Ways and Means hearing and another House hearing streamed on YouTube at the same time — a Small Business Committee hearing on the Paycheck Protection Program — did not appear to face any technical issues.

The Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on diversity at the State Department was forced to recess twice to resolve issues with the video and audio streams.

During opening statements by witnesses, a staffer informed Subcommittee Chairman Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) of the issues.

Castro decided to call a recess, saying that several committees were facing a “capacity issue” with their YouTube streams.

The glitches returned later in the hearing, and the subcommittee briefly recessed again around 2 p.m.

A hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism subcommittee faced technical issues the previous day.

The technical difficulties on Wednesday appeared to be the most significant and widespread since the House authorized remote voting and committee work by videoconference in a party-line vote last month. Democrats proposed the historic rules change out of concerns about traveling and congregating during the coronavirus pandemic.

Top Republicans criticized the measure at the time, arguing it would undermine their ability to represent constituents. In a letter to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the ranking members of each House committee called the move a “partisan assault on the rights of the House Minority” and argued that lawmakers could safely return to work with proper precautions.

GOP lawmakers renewed those arguments on Wednesday.

“Congress is not meant to be phoned in,” Burgess said in a statement. “As you saw today even the committee that has primary jurisdiction over technology is not immune to this.”

Several Republicans, including Burgess, continue to travel back and forth to Washington to attend hearings.

“What was experienced today is just another reason, the House needs to be back in Washington,” he added. “The Senate found a way to safely return. It is past time the House does the same.”

The GOP-controlled Senate has remained in session through much of the pandemic.

A House Energy and Commerce GOP spokesperson said Wednesday’s issue “further highlights the need for members to get back to work, safely and in-person.”

“We were lucky we were able to find a way to carry on with today’s hearing as planned, but today’s technical issues highlight some of the difficulties and problems that would arise if the Committee proceeds with any sort of legislative markup and how the rights of minority and individual members could be jeopardized,” the spokesperson said.

In a statement, a Democratic spokesperson for the committee said the technical glitches did not change the Democrats’ position on remote work.

“It’s unfortunate that we had technical difficulties with the live feed today, but we continue to believe that remote hearings are the safest way to conduct our hearings,” the spokesperson said. “The Committee will upload a clean feed of the hearing later today.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Joaquin Castro Michael Burgess Pandemic remote hearings Robert Lighthizer Steny Hoyer

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