Dealing with virus, Senate embraces remote video at hearings

Dealing with virus, Senate embraces remote video at hearings
Dealing with virus, Senate embraces remote video at hearings

Trying to return to a semblance of normal legislative activity on Capitol Hill during the Coronavirus outbreak, Senators did their best last week to use video hookups to join a series of hearings, reducing the number of lawmakers traipsing the halls and sitting in hearing rooms, fully embracing technology in a way which might have been frowned upon by solons of the past.

"I think this was an unmitigated success today doing this hearing this way," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) via video hookup to a Tuesday hearing.

But the remote video sessions weren't used just by Senators who were back in their home states, as a number of members in both parties joined various hearings from the comfort and safety of their offices - keeping their distance from their colleagues.

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"We are holding this hearing in unusual circumstances," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who alternated between going to hearings in person and joining them by remote video.

The video appearances by Senators were notable mainly for how normal they seemed in the midst of a completely disruptive virus outbreak.

Senators made their statements, asked their questions of the witnesses and used their time just as if they had been sitting on the dais.

Maybe the only odd part was the witnesses answering questions to a large screen television monitor instead of a live Senator - but the hearings did not suffer.

Yes, there were a few hiccups at times for the Senators on video - with their cameras slightly askew or out of focus, not enough light on the Senator, or in one case, the dog barking in the background.

For example, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) spent some time at one hearing reading from his notes - the problem was his camera was only catching the top of his head for most of the period where he was reading.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) seemed to need some more light for his appearance, as he and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) spent some time on camera looking more like the view through a pair of smudged glasses.

But for the most part, the effort seemed to be a bipartisan success, and there were no sounds of a toilet flushing - as happened during one U.S. Supreme Court telephone argument.

Senators were taking advantage of technology after agreeing to change the rules governing the use of video conferencing for Senators, something the House has yet to agree upon.

"Sen. (Roy) Blunt (R-MO) and I worked hard in the Rules Committee to get this done," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), as she joined a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing by video conference.

"I'm glad that we are seeing Senators there as well as remotely," Klobuchar added, though her audio cut in and out a few seconds later, as Senators embraced technological change in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body

"Here I am, is this working?" said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) in a jovial voice, as he tried to start his questioning via video at a judicial nomination hearing.

"We hear you, now we see you," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). "You look great."

"Oh, thanks," Whitehouse said with a big grin.