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House lawmakers lay out defense bill plans in face of COVID-19 limitations

House Armed Services Committee leaders say they hope to have the fiscal year 2021 defense authorization bill ready by May 1, though the COVID-19 outbreak means the legislation will be crafted in a much different and more "informal" way than in the past. "One challenge is deciding how to handle meetings of the committee and subcommittees since all such meetings for April will have to be held by conference call or video conference," committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-TX) write in a March 31 letter to committee members. They say they plan to announce a time to mark up the bill once the House schedule for the next few months becomes clear. The lawmakers note that they cannot hold public hearings or classified briefings in "the formal sense like in normal circumstances." Rather, the committee will now have "what can best be called informal events," Smith and Thornberry write. "Public hearings are required to be open to the public," their letter states. "They also require a quorum, involving the physical presence of members. Neither of these things are possible to achieve in conference calls or video conferences. Obviously, we also cannot have classified briefings over the phone or on video. There is no way to set up secure connections amongst the number of people that would have to be involved." As a result, "informal events" will involve the full committee and subcommittees using video or phone conferences with any necessary staff or witnesses. Smith and Thornberry say the arrangement will be in place for the month of April, though even that will have its limitations. For one thing, committee staff will be stretched thin during the pandemic to support the informal events and write the final FY-21 defense authorization bill. "In fact, we did not plan on having a significant number of public hearings or briefings in April even before the shutdown happened due to this staff workload," the lawmakers' letter states. Further, any efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among Defense Department personnel and others will "without question limit the ability of the department and other witnesses to be available at times in the coming month." Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee has gone to a "paper hearing" format because of the pandemic. In their letter, Smith and Thornberry say they are committed to finishing a defense authorization bill. "In the face of all this, we will put together these informal events when we think they are needed for us to do our job -- to get our bill done, to exercise the necessary oversight of the department, and to do what we can to address the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic," they write. "We are absolutely committed to getting our bill done and using all of the resources at our disposal to meet the challenge of the pandemic and continue to do the important work our committee does."

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