Congress Must Return to Session
COMMENTARY

May 13, 2020by Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.)
Rep. Kendra Horn. (Photo by Mary Horn Photography)

There is no question that the United States is in crisis. A global pandemic and economic crisis have upended American life, costing lives and leaving millions of families without a way to make ends meet. In the face of this national emergency, those of us in Congress must be able to carry out all of our core constitutional responsibilities in a timely, targeted, and transparent manner. We must not only deliver relief for those in need and advocate for our constituents, but also conduct public hearings, mark up legislation and hold debate.

In this time of great challenge, we must have the ability to conduct the full scope of business in the House of Representatives. I was deeply disappointed by the decision to cancel session in the House earlier this month, and I have grown increasingly troubled by the inability of congressional leadership to find a sustainable path forward for commencing work during the pandemic. Whether safely in person or virtually, holding hearings and legislating is at the very heart of our duties, and these procedures provide needed transparency during our nation’s historic response to this pandemic.

Yet more than eight weeks after the House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Congress has still not implemented remote voting systems, procedures for safe in-person legislative work or a sustainable plan that would allow members of Congress to continue legislative business. Instead, a handful of party leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, have made sweeping decisions about stimulus legislation and our national crisis response. Transparency and good government have suffered.

Let me be clear, members of Congress never stopped working. The new and creative ways in which my colleagues have stepped up to serve their communities during the national shutdown are empowering and inspiring. We have held virtual and telephone town halls to connect with constituents across our districts. Congressional committees have held regular conference calls and virtual meetings. And federal, state and local officials have worked hand-in-hand to get relief where it is most needed.

In many cases, lawmakers are working harder than ever, but a critical component of our constitutional role has been put on hold. The result is less transparent decision making, delays to our work in the national interest, and for some members, fewer opportunities for across-the-aisle collaboration.

In the House, I serve on the Armed Services Committee, which right now would normally be holding public hearings and marking up the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). While members on our committee are hard at work in conversations with committee leaders, transparency and the public’s role in the crafting of this legislation are indispensable.

I am proud of the historic bipartisan relief bills we have passed since the COVID-19 outbreak began, but the process for passing these bills has lacked public debate and opportunity for input. While it is understandable that an unprecedented pandemic reduced opportunities for due process, our leadership has now had more than a month to craft new procedural rules that would allow for greater public access and member participation.

There is room for bipartisan agreement on rules to allow for the legislative work of Congress to continue. Last month, I joined a bipartisan letter to congressional House leadership calling on Congress to begin planning and approving ways for the U.S. House of Representatives to fully function during the present COVID-19 emergency. Last week, I participated in a bipartisan “Virtual Congress” debate held by the Problem Solvers Caucus to demonstrate the viability of virtual legislative business.

While the Speaker has discussed bringing the House back into session this week, there is still no clear plan for getting the chamber back to business for a sustained period of time. There are no plans or alternatives for Congress to carry out its full work should there be another delay. So far, no proposal for remote legislative systems or safe in-person procedures have been brought to the floor for consideration.

You can always find a reason not to try something new. It is easy to reject change in a historic institution such as Congress, but the tradition most important to our democracy, the one we must preserve, is our work to ensure transparency and accountability in a government by and for the people.

America is in crisis, and Congress must resume the full scope of our work to help our nation through this national emergency.


Kendra Horn represents Oklahoma’s 5th District and serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

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