Lofgren Statement in Support of Measure to Ensure House can Govern in Coronavirus Pandemic

May 15, 2020
Press Release

San Jose, Calif. - Chairperson Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) issued the following statement today in support of H. Res. 965, a measure to temporarily implement remote voting on the House Floor and virtual committee proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic:

"I rise today in support of H. Res. 965, a measure to ensure that the House can continue to govern during the coronavirus pandemic.  The proposals before us offer new ways to conduct our legislative business.  In some respects, they present new tools for governing – but they are within our authority to implement and they are not intended to replace our regular order.  To the contrary, they present a fallback option to ensure that the House can continue to lead during this crisis, and as the resolution makes clear, they are intended to be used only during extraordinary circumstances. 

And there can be no doubt that these are extraordinary times.  We know that to date, about 1.4 million Americans have already contracted this deadly virus.  To put this in perspective, that’s more than the entire population of my hometown, San Jose, California, which is the tenth largest city in the country.

In just three months, more Americans have died from the coronavirus than were killed in all the wars we have fought in more than a half century combined – including in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

According to one model, which the White House has relied on, by August of this year the toll could be as high as 147,000 deaths.  That’s nearly twice as many as the same model forecast only two weeks ago.

At the same time, we face dire economic conditions.  In the past eight weeks, more than 36.5 million unemployment claims have been filed, and the unemployment rate has quadrupled, soaring to 14.7 percent.  It has previously been estimated that the nation’s highest ever unemployment rate was 24.9 percent, during the Great Depression in 1933.  Yesterday, California’s Employment Development Department released new data which show that the unemployment rate in my state may already be 24.4 percent.

 The coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our daily lives, upending businesses and grinding our economy to a halt.  This crisis demands legislative action and oversight. 

However, the health guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the advice of the Attending Physician show that there are significant challenges to the House operating as if nothing has changed, including the need for social distancing, use of masks or facial coverings, cancelling any gatherings of more than 250 individuals or more than 10 individuals in a high-risk category, and others.

Moreover, we are still learning about how this highly contagious deadly virus is spread and what steps can be taken to mitigate its further spread.  I represent Santa Clara County, which experts now believe suffered the first death from the coronavirus in the United States.  But experts did not know until mid-April that a death which occurred on February 6 was actually a result of the coronavirus.

I am mindful that many people are putting themselves at risk by working on the frontlines every day:  from doctors and nurses, to police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, to transit workers and truck drivers, among others.  As the daughter of a truck driver and a cafeteria cook, I deeply appreciate everything all of these people are doing to support their communities and the country, even at risk to their own health.

However, we in Congress have an option that most of these vital frontline workers do not:  we can do our work remotely in a safe, secure, online format.  It is clear that we need rules that allow the House to conduct oversight of the coronavirus response, mark up legislation, and take votes on the House Floor without needlessly putting Members, Capitol Police, staff, press, and non-partisan institutional staff at risk.

The resolution before us would provide mechanisms to do just that, both at the committee level and on the House floor.

A series of events this week prove that the highest levels of our government recognize the need to adapt our work to the 21st century – and that we can do so in a safe, secure, and transparent way.

The Supreme Court – which has long resisted modest attempts to increase transparency and public access to its proceedings – heard oral arguments by conference call, as it has done during the pandemic.  Those important cases involve critical congressional oversight prerogatives. 

The Senate held a hearing that included remote participation, as it has done during the pandemic. This time, it included an entire panel of witnesses testifying remotely, as well as a Chairman and Ranking Member who led the hearing remotely, in addition to other Senators.

For its part, the executive branch recognized the legitimacy and need for these virtual proceedings by participating in the proceedings of both the legislative and judicial branches – including by having high ranking members of the White House Task Force testify remotely in a Senate hearing about the Administration’s response.

Expanding congressional activity online ensures that we can continue to act, while reserving precious testing equipment and supplies for frontline workers who don’t have jobs that can be performed remotely. 

The House has not always been quick to adopt technology to its legislative procedures.  It is not unusual for any institution steeped in history and precedent to resist technological change.  That was the case for the House when it came to advances like electronic voting and televising our proceedings – both of which we take for granted today.  The first bill to permit a form of electrical and mechanical voting was introduced in 1886, but the House did not take its first electronic vote until 1973, nearly 90 years later.  Similarly, it took more than 40 years from the time Members of the House first appeared on live television to the time that cameras were allowed to broadcast live proceedings on the House floor.

Resistance to technological change for governing has not been unique to the House.  The Senate took another seven years after the House to permit television coverage of its proceedings, and it still does not permit electronic voting.  Even today, the Supreme Court does not televise its proceedings. 

Yet, as we have seen this week, both of those institutions have recognized that we are living in extraordinary times, and that it is essential to change the way they operate. 

We can – and we must – act swiftly to ensure that Congress can continue its legislative and oversight work online during these unique and extraordinary times.  Working with Leader Hoyer, Chairman McGovern, and the staffs of the Rules and House Administration committees, together we have prepared a proposal that encompasses two distinct components:  remote, directed voting on the House floor, and remote committee hearings and markups to ensure that we can continue to develop additional legislative solutions and carry out oversight of the Administration’s response.

For committee operations, the resolution provides for the use of suitable, secure online platforms for committee proceedings.  The intent of the resolution is not to provide an advantage to either the majority or the minority, but to permit committees’ proceedings to have the same status and significance as if they were held entirely in-person. 

For voting on the floor, we will rely on a secure email system, coupled with Member-driven, remotely-directed authorizations.  This system would use secure email for proxy votes: a solid, well known, resilient technology with very low bandwidth requirements that we understand very well from a cybersecurity standpoint.

These new provisions build on steps we have already taken to expand the use of technology during the pandemic to promote social distancing and other safeguards consistent with the advice of the Attending Physician and the CDC. 

For example, last month the Speaker directed the creation of an electronic hopper to permit the virtual submission of all Floor documents – including bills, resolutions, co-sponsors and extensions of remarks – via a dedicated and secure email system. Since the policy took effect, 489 measures have been filed, and of those, 482 measures were filed electronically and just 7 were filed using the old process.

And in my capacity as Chairperson of the Joint Committee on Printing, I directed the GPO to accept for publication in the Congressional Record extensions of remarks submitted with a Member’s electronic signature.  Under this new, more convenient system Members have filed 356 extensions of remarks by email.

I represent Silicon Valley, which has become synonymous around the world for technology and the spirit of innovation.  We in Congress must adopt the entrepreneurial spirit and openness to new technology that made that community a global leader and apply it to the procedural and logistical challenges we face in our legislative operations – as well as to a strategy to respond to and overcome the coronavirus.

Congress Number: 
116th Congress