House Modernization Committee approves continuity of operations recommendations

Agencies that laid the groundwork for modernization before the coronavirus pandemic have seen those efforts pay off, especially with mandatory telework still in effect for much of the federal workforce.

The same goes for the House Modernization Committee, which more than a year ago held a hearing on increasing videoconference capabilities for members. Today, those capabilities have proved invaluable for the House’s continuity of operations.

Now nearly five months into the pandemic, the House Modernization Committee has passed a dozen recommendations that reflect on some of the feedback gathered from members of Congress and their staff working during the pandemic.

Some of the recommendations stem from lessons learned during the pandemic, such as shortages of equipment, a lack of clearly defined continuity policies or a lack in coordination between D.C. and district offices.

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But committee chairman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) told reporters Friday that the recommendations also include best practices, such as electronic submission of bills and e-signatures, that would help the House operate better with or without a pandemic.

“Frankly, we were looking at issues related to continuity before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. Certainly some of the recommendations that we’ve made in this space have been really designed to ensure that Congress can keep functioning and that there is an approach to teleworking and continuity not necessarily just related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kilmer said.

Vice Chairman Tom Graves (R-Ga.) acknowledged some of the challenges of working through the pandemic prior to the committee’s vote, but said innovation has allowed Congress and the workforce to keep functioning during the pandemic.

“It is critical that in times like these, Congress has a plan in place to continue working effectively and efficiently for our constituents,” Graves said.

As with its earlier recommendations, the committee will bundle these and upcoming proposals into legislation it will introduce onto the House floor. Kilmer said the next steps include an examination of House scheduling, staff recruitment and diversity efforts in August before introducing the resolution in September.

Among the dozen recommendations it passed Friday, the committee urges House offices to prioritize the approval of platforms staff need to telework and ensure staff have the software licenses they need.

Kilmer said the House Chief Administrative Officer and the House Administration Committee have carried out much of the working in approving IT platforms for congressional offices to work remotely during the pandemic.

The committee also recommends new members of Congress receive continuity, telework and cybersecurity training, and that the House establish regular maintenance plans for office technology.

“Obviously, with technology needs changing over time and with technology evolving, having the House continue to keep an eye on platforms and technologies that enable effective telework I think is really important, and that’s why we’ve had a recommendation in that regard,” Kilmer said.

Meanwhile, the recommendations also call other committees to develop plans to incorporate technology platforms into daily work, even after the pandemic.

While the committee recommends developing continuity of operations plans that include minimum safety requirements and emergency communication best practices, much of the guidance on mask-wearing and office cleaning guidance falls on the House Administration Committee and the House Sergeant-at-Arms.

While the House approved a temporary rules change in May to allow voting by proxy, lawmakers have yet to authorize floor votes through the same videoconference platforms used to conduct committee hearings and business meetings.

“At a time where public health professionals have suggested that it’s not necessarily safe or a good idea for everybody to be making it back to Washington D.C., committees and the House as a body need to continue to function,” Kilmer said.