‘Arf!’: Chatty Congress is learning to respect mute button

Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., shown on a monitor, right, speaks during virtual Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing, Tuesday, May 12, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, top left, is to testify before the committee. (Win McNamee/Pool via AP)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Hey, everyone on the call? We can hear a dog barking. Could senators please make sure you are on mute?

It was a serious meeting on a frightening global pandemic. But as the Senate health committee on Tuesday convened by video conference, the session became a reminder that the nation’s lawmakers and the world’s foremost health experts are learning the awkward business of doing business from home, right along with the rest of us.

They’re shushing their dogs. They’re beaming in from their dens and offices, with carefully chosen backdrops. They’re tweaking technical issues, such as lighting. And they’re learning the special awkwardness of speaking to others, remotely.

“Is this thing working?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her weekly press conference on Thursday as she took questions that were piped in.

The ubiquitous quarantine conference call — or hearing, as the case was Tuesday — can be an excruciating challenge known by anyone who’s tried to take turns speaking and listening from a square on a Brady Bunch-style screen. And the tradition-loving Congress is struggling to smooth the process amid the first pandemic in any lawmaker’s lifetime, with more floor votes and the November elections ahead.

Tuesday’s proceedings broadcast both the urgency and the learning curve. Throughout, senators and the nation’s top health experts made dire predictions often at odds with President Donald Trump’s declaration that his government had “prevailed” over the virus that has killed at least 80,000 Americans.

No one on Tuesday expressed Trump’s degree of optimism. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, testified from an office that lifting stay-at-home orders without following guidelines could cause “little spikes that might turn into outbreaks.”

Some of the social media commentary suggested that people had an appetite for humor and competence amid the grim news. RoomRater, an anti-Trump Twitter feed that rates the backdrops of conference participants, noted Fauci’s book collection that spread over a set of shelves and a cart and spilled into a knee-high pile on the floor.

“The room we need. Wise. Experienced. Horizontal books are allowed. Depth of knowledge. 10/10.”

Fauci’s testimony before a Senate committee came as more than two dozen states have begun to lift their lockdowns as a first step toward economic recovery.

Despite the distance, the arrangement offered glimpses into the lawmakers’ surroundings. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts noted that a photograph of a photograph on the office wall behind him depicted “a stagecoach coming into Dodge, not getting out of Dodge,” his hometown in Kansas.

There were hiccups. A dog could be heard barking as Chairman Lamar Alexander introduced two witnesses, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Adm. Brett Giroir, the coronavirus testing czar at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Later, it happened again. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked a meaty question about funding for bio-surveillance. The anonymous off-screen yipping continued for about 40 seconds; Burr pressed on with his query.

Jokes abounded in the Twittersphere about how the episode improved the rhetoric emanating from the Senate.

From the start, the event showcased the sort of process and potholes that lie ahead for months as the tradition-loving Congress figures out how to hold such remote sessions and someday, perhaps, proxy voting. There’s an urgency to smoothing the process.

And it is a process.

Alexander opened the hearing by describing how the session would work, clearly the product of planning between Senate staff and Capitol health officials.

Rather than sitting along the committee’s raised desks, senators in attendance would sit 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart at black-draped tables that ringed the chamber’s floor. In the center, roughly where witnesses, lobbyists and members of the public usually pack the audience, was space for a photographer or two. The media, Alexander said, was represented by a pool, rather than the usual tables crammed with reporters.

Others, including members of the president’s coronavirus brain trust, conferenced in from elsewhere.

For his part, Alexander ran the hearing from his log cabin in Maryville, Tennessee. Like Fauci and other members of the president’s coronavirus task force, Alexander was isolating because he had been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus.

At times, he leaned half out of the frame, leaving at its center a fireplace mantle, a painting — and notably a dog, identified by Alexander’s office as Rufus, who appeared to be sleeping at times.

Alexander issued a nondenial denial that Rufus was the guilty, barking party.

“There was a suggestion that Rufus was the barking dog in the background, but that is #fakenews,” the senator tweeted. “He was well behaved, except when he left to take a walk.”


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