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The House Meets to Debate Paycheck Protection Act Funds. But Why Can’t Congress Conduct Business Remotely?

David Jelke

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An image from video as Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., gestures to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., as they speak on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday

April 23, 2020— Congress is “unwilling and unable, but mostly unwilling” to attempt remote voting, said Daniel Schuman, the policy director of Demand Progress, at a webinar hosted by the Cato Institute on Thursday.

With congressmen spread across the country practicing social distancing, the answer to the question of how they vote, pass laws, and help run the country has been elusive.

The question was in the air again on Thursday as members of Congress returned to Washington to debate and vote on the national legislature’s forth major coronavirus stimulus package – a $484 billion funding measure, with a $310 billion replenishment of funds for the Paycheck Protection Program. Other funding was for hospitals and COVID-19 testing.

The measure was the first time Congress has convened for traditional legislative debate since the passage of the U.S. CARES Act on March 27.

Congress passed the first coronavirus-focused measure on March 8, an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill. The second, which passed the House on March 12 and the Senate on March 18, spent about $500 billion on unemployment insurance.

The U.S. CARES Act was the third measure, and totaled more than $2 trillion. The package included $300 billion for the first round of the PPP, and which were already spent by last week.

The Paycheck Protection Program provides forgivable loans for businesses to retain their employees for 2.5 months.

During all of these legislative debates, once central question has been: Why can’t Congress conduct its business remotely?

Some claim that electronic voting is not safe enough, while others say that congressmen are too old to adapt to new technologies.

“The legislative branch, for the foreseeable future, is defunct,” said Schuman, an often-forthright critic of a highly inactive Congress.

Schuman dug into Congress’ unreadiness and reluctance to adapt.

“Congress historically is unwilling and unable to invest in itself,” he said. Apparently, several motions have been proposed in the past to create a nuclear-like contingency plan for electronic voting, but Congress has chosen not to pursue them.

He expressed his belief that congressmen have failed to act because they were afraid that their spending on electronic voting system would represent “frivolous spending” to their constituents. As a result, they use technology that Schuman described as “the oldest, jankiest stuff.”

Schuman contended that it would not be hard to implement an electronic voting system, but congressmen have a hard time “conceptualizing” that and furthermore don’t trust security.

Schuman contrasted these responses with the relative readiness of the U.K. parliamentary system, which recently announced that it will be conducting voting through Zoom. In addition, Schuman mentioned how New Jersey and Utah have adopted similar procedures for their state assemblies. “The problem isn’t the security but the people.”

Another problem of a lack of voting, besides a sluggish legislature, is that it cedes power to the executive branch, throwing the country’s system of checks and balances into disarray. “They are making the executive branch very powerful,” Schuman said, referring to the legislature’s relative absence from political affairs.

“This is really about political will. This is about the desire to do your job and to innovate,” Schuman said.

David Jelke was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in neuroscience. Growing up in Miami, he learned to speak Spanish during a study abroad semester in Peru. He is now teaching himself French on his iPhone.

Broadband's Impact

House Commerce Committee Aligned on Telecom, Mapping and Supply Chain Security, Says Ranking Member

Derek Shumway

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Photo from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers' website

March 18, 2021 – House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, said Wednesday that the committee was among the most bipartisan on issues including telecom.

Rodgers, who was speaking at the Internet Innovation Alliance with co-chair Bruce Mehlman, said that her Republican colleagues have put forth 28 solutions that would remove regulatory barriers and streamline broadband processes yet demonstrate funding is being spent wisely. She called on the government to ensure cost-effective ways to spend federal dollars.

She said the committee’s priority must be on accurate broadband mapping. That requires funding for more granular data. She also argued for national security against China, including on solar and wind energy products.

Rodgers also said she was excited about low-earth orbit satellites and the potential future they bring in connecting parts of the country with internet that have been “economically unfeasible in the past.”

Asked of her thoughts on virtual learning from home, especially how her 14-year old son with down syndrome is faring, Rodgers said she was completely in favor of reopening schools safely because not all parents have the means to provide optimal learning spaces at home.

Calling herself a working mother who could afford to provide an assistant to help her son through his school day, Rodgers said it was not the best way to learn when compared to in-person schooling.

This came after she said the country has the best networks and “some of the fastest speeds at the lowest prices in the world for internet service.”

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House of Representatives

Emphasis on Combating COVID-19 and Rebuilding Infrastructure at First Energy and Commerce Meeting

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, by Bonnie Cash used with permission

January 28, 2021—During the first organizational meeting of the House Commerce Committee of the 117th Congress, Chairman Frank Pallone of New Jersey welcomed the newest members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bulk of the Committee’s first meeting was dedicated to discussing best practices to reduce healthcare and prescription drug costs, rebuild and modernize the nation’s infrastructure, and combat climate change.

Members further discussed rebuilding and restoring the essential functions of key agencies. Strengthening the Center for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency were deemed essential. Members considered the waning of the two agencies to be at “the very heart” of creating some of the nation’s most pressing current legislative and policy issues.

Members also approved governing procedures and announce subcommittee chairs, ranking members, and other subcommittee assignments.

Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington is  the new ranking member, and the first woman in that role for the committee.

Pallone further announced Democratic members joining the Committee, including Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, known for her interest in climate change and infrastructure. Rep. Angie Craig, of Minnesota, was touted for work on the Affordable Care Act. Rep. Kim Schrier of Washington was recognized for her work as a pediatrician.

Rep. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts has an interested in the opioid pandemic and the environment. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Texas is focused on first responders and firefighting foams.

Pallone addressed members of the committee in the 117th Congress

Pallone thanked members and reiterated the need to enact policies to combat COVID-19 through vaccine distribution. He criticized former President Donald Trump for lacking effective implementation strategies to vaccinate more Americans sooner.

He said policies were needed that “provide critical assistance to struggling families, rebuild our economy, and bring an end to the pandemic, so people can begin to safely return to regular practice of life.”

Pallone praised President Joe Biden’s executive orders on vaccine distribution, expanded access to testing, and utilization of the Defense Production Act, which allows continued access to medical supplies and personal protective equipment for testing and vaccination.

The committee also took time to celebrate its own 225th birthday, which occurred last month. It is the oldest committee in the House.

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Broadband Mapping

At INCOMPAS, Top House Democrats Say Republicans’ COVID-19 Broadband Response Inadequate

Liana Sowa

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Screenshot of Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., at the INCOMPAS conference

September 15, 2020 – The lack of access to broadband is still a widespread issue across the country, especially in rural areas, two top House Democrats said Tuesday at the INCOMPAS virtual show ConnectIn.

“The failures of this administration are forcing people to put their health and their family’s health at risk,” said Pennsylvanian Mike Doyle, Chairman of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

“We can’t rely on corporate promises or donations—we need Congress to act” on funding for broadband to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. The billions of dollars of funding for students, families, and those hit by the pandemic have been insufficient for the moment, he said.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina highlighted the certainty that broadband will be a top priority of the 117th Congress next year.

Broadband “will absolutely be a top priority next year, said Clyburn. “Anything we do this year will be insufficient.”

Screenshot of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., at the INCOMPAS conference

Clyburn also advocated for broadband to be viewed as a utility. Last year when Clyburn formed the Rural Broadband Taskforce, his goal was to get broadband to be “classified as an infrastructure issue.”

“We call the internet the information highway. So, let’s treat it like we treat the interstate highways—a necessary entity to get us where we want to be.”

He argued that getting the internet in every home was the key to getting healthcare and online learning to rural communities: “Without the broadband we cannot have telehealth. we cannot have online learning. If you aren’t connected, you aren’t going to get educated.”

Democrats’ funding proposals for broadband don’t get traction with the Republican-controlled chamber

Doyle explained that since the start of the pandemic, the government has spent $2 billion in online learning and $1 billion to expand broadband for those with low income.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, H.R. 6800, put $5 billion toward remote learning and $9 billion toward emergency connectivity for low income and recently unemployed Americans. The measure passed the Democratic-controlled House 208-199 in May. It languishes in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Doyle asserted that the $100 billion Moving Forward Act, the Democrat’s pre-pandemic infrastructure measure H.R. 2, was the country’s most significant proposal to close the digital divide.

Doyle further presented four goals for addressing issues of connectivity in rural areas.

First, policy-makers should make historic investment in broadband, connecting all Americans. Second, lower the cost of broadband. Third, ensure students have the technology that they need. And finally, combat misinformation on the internet.

Clyburn suggested that government efforts keep the home and the economy in mind when designing relief programs. Bringing better-quality broadband to rural areas will greatly improve the economy because by allowing rural business owners to function more efficiently, because rural business owners wouldn’t need to go to the nearest city just to have access to reliable broadband..

Clyburn also highlighted the need for reform of broadband mapping.

In rural areas, he explained, some communities are still set up similarly to how plantations were, with a single large house and other smaller houses surrounding it.

He scolded broadband mappers for deeming the area “covered” when only a big house had coverage and the little ones did not.

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