E&C Republicans Strike Down Amendment Opening Up Committee to Witnesses Outside of Washington, DC
Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) today blasted Committee Republicans for striking down an amendment that would have maintained the ability of the minority to select its witnesses for hearings, including witnesses that cannot, for whatever reason, appear in person. The amendment was struck down by the Republican majority by a vote of 28-23. The Ranking Member gave the following statement in support of his amendment:
As I mentioned in my opening statement, I have serious concerns with the Republican Majority’s decision to require any remote witnesses at the Energy and Commerce Committee be approved by the Majority Leader. Even before COVID-19, the Committee allowed witnesses to testify, including Chairman Upton inviting Jennifer Thomas of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers to testify from Brussels during a hearing on chemical safety and Chairman Walden inviting a constituent who tragically lost her child to overdose to testify remotely during a hearing on the opioid epidemic. Allowing such witnesses to participate remotely in those hearings provided the opportunity for the Committee to hear from a diverse group of people from outside of Washington, D.C. and from all walks of life.
As you know, Congress does not compensate nor pay for the travel of witnesses who take time away from work and their families on short notice to come to Washington to share their story and expertise with us. The remote witnesses that testified before this Committee during the last three years proved how extremely invaluable broadening the voices and opinions that we all hear from during our hearings can be.
Unfortunately rather than taking advantage of the technological tools that allows us to engage with Americans where they are – instead of forcing them to come to us – I am afraid that Republicans’ unnecessary restrictions on remote witnesses means Congress will only hear more from the wealthy and well-connected. It’s a shame Republicans are more interested in hearing from DC lobbyists and the wealthy special interests than hardworking people from across the country.
Further, I am concerned that this Rule and its implementing regulations will be used to limit the voice of the minority.
The rule grants discretion to the Chair to determine the necessity of any witness – including those of the minority – to participate remotely. This sets up the situation where the minority identifies the witness that is best positioned to testify to the priorities, concerns, or experiences of interest to the minority and that the minority believes is necessary to fulfill Congress’s Article 1 responsibility – and that witness can be denied by the majority. And the majority has this power simply because a potential minority witness cannot participate in person due to situations such as financial hardship, significant health concerns, or even due to the short notice the minority is provided to identify witnesses.
On partisan witness panels, the minority witnesses are already far outnumbered. For example, on the full Committee panel scheduled for later today, there will be three majority witnesses and one minority witness. Clearly that was not enough.
Under this rule, the Chair could have rejected the participation of our first-choice witness if she had a conflict that prevented her from testifying in person today or perhaps tested positive for COVID this morning. This is nothing short of an abuse of power – only for the benefit of the wealthy and connected – not for the everyday Americans that we all represent.
That is why I am offering this amendment to maintain the ability of the minority to select our witness. My amendment would simply restore the preexisting balance of power between the Chair and minority leader within the Committee – thus allowing the Chair to put forward the majority witnesses and the Ranking Member to put forward the minority witnesses.
I understand that the Chair cannot control the decision of the Majority Leader, but isn’t it only fair that the minority has the opportunity to be heard. We have constantly heard from our Republican colleagues that all speech should be valued. Well, how can that be true when you’re willing to allow speech to be squelched simply because someone cannot afford or has some other conflict that prevents them from physically attending a hearing here in Rayburn.
For example, we may identify a woman with a high-risk pregnancy to testify as the minority witness at a hearing on the maternal mortality crisis. That woman could share the fear that faces many women in America, particularly Black women, who are confronted with the terrifying statistic that America has the highest maternal mortality rate of any industrialized country. As Democrats, we think this woman would be a critical addition to the conversation – yet the Chair and Majority Leader could reject our witness because this woman’s doctor has ordered her not to travel. As Democrats, we think this arbitrary distinction between witnesses appearing in person or virtually in Rayburn would result in Congress not hearing from an invaluable voice – which would be a shame.
We have the technology to modernize this institution and to bring in voices and opinions from all parts of the nation. This is not the era before the internet or even COVID – there are technological tools that are bringing Americans closer together and that allows our constituents’ voices to be brought closer to Congress from locations in our Districts not just in Washington, D.C.
Technological advances allowed us to open the people’s House to many more Americans through remote participation in our hearings over the past several years. As Democrats, we believe this allowed us to hear from more diverse voices, which was positive, and we strongly reject the notion that the ability to pay or overcome other obstacles that prevent in person participation in Energy and Commerce hearings means your voice should not be heard and is not valuable to this Committee and Congress.
I urge my colleagues to support this amendment.