Hill ‘surprised’ by majority leader’s decision to push back legislative session
Written by Frank Lockwood
Published by Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette
U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., is “disappointed” that the House won’t be gaveled back into session in a few days, he said Tuesday.
“I was surprised at [Majority] Leader [Steny] Hoyer’s decision,” the Little Rock Republican said.
After announcing plans Monday for the House to reconvene, the Maryland Democrat reversed course Tuesday morning, following objections from fellow Democrats.
“It would have been my preference [to return to the Capitol],” Hill said. “The Senate is coming back next week. There’s a lot of oversight work and committee work that Congress needs to continue to pursue. I think that’s best done in Washington.”
Hill was recently appointed to serve on the newly created Congressional Oversight Commission, which will help monitor up to $500 billion in covid-19-related relief funds that are earmarked for business loans, loan guarantees and other investments.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., must agree on a chairperson to lead the commission before its work will commence, Hill said.
Given the challenges facing the country, it’s not good for lawmakers to be sidelined, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said Tuesday.
“I think it shows leadership for Congress to get back to work,” the Republican from Hot Springs said.
House committees could be hashing out key legislation in the days ahead, he said.
Social distancing would need to be enforced, he said.
“There’s no reason why we couldn’t meet in a large auditorium, everybody spread out, have the debate, do the markups and get the bills ready to go to the floor,” he said.
Once a committee completed its work, then all 429 lawmakers could be summoned back to Washington to vote on the final legislation, Westerman said. (Six of the 435 seats are vacant.)
In an interview, he stressed the importance of acting responsibly.
“[If] you had an outbreak of coronavirus on Capitol Hill, I think that would set a bad precedent for the country,” he said. “People would say, ‘If this is what happened in Congress, we sure don’t need to go back to work in our jobs.'”
Done the right way, Congress could show the country “how we start ramping back up and resume our work and do it in a safe and orderly fashion,” he added.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., said it’s going to be hard for Congress to resume meeting as long as Washington is under a citywide “stay-at-home order.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s order, issued March 30, allows residents to leave their homes to “perform or access essential governmental functions” or to “engage in essential travel.”
Federal and city covid-19 directives, nonetheless, have effectively closed much of the city, Crawford noted.
“I think it would be difficult for us to be up there on any kind of a regular schedule if the city is locked down,” the Jonesboro Republican said.
“It’s one thing to go up there real quick [and] vote on a single bill or maybe a bill or two,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a way that you can conduct business day to day.”
Like Westerman, Crawford said Congress should have key committees meet and mark up vital legislation, such as the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets annual military spending levels.
“We have to sort of prioritize what is the most pressing legislative agenda item that we have to resolve,” he said.
Eventually, Congress must come up with a system that allows remote voting in cases of emergency, he added.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., couldn’t be reached for comment.
Unlike the House, the U.S. Senate plans to reconvene next week.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said there’s plenty of work to do.
The defense act needs to be dealt with. Transportation funding must also be addressed. It’s also important for lawmakers to review recent coronavirus-relief spending to see if it’s working as intended, he said.
These items “aren’t necessarily glamorous but they’re the backbone of our country,” the Republican from Rogers said.
Despite the dangers posed by covid-19, it’s important for lawmakers to return to Washington, he said.
“There are some risks, and yet I think that our duty station is in Washington,” Boozman said. “I think the risks are certainly manageable but I think we need to go back. We’re at a point now where the only way we can do our job effectively, I think, is to be there in person.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In a text, Cotton spokesman James Arnold said the Dardanelle Republican will be in the Senate next week “to do his duty for Arkansans.”
“He will continue to take safety precautions and practice social distance,” Arnold added.