Respectfully? Pretty much, yes, but the subtext of this request from the New Democrat Coalition leadership to Nancy Pelosi clearly questions the wisdom of her strategy, if not her leadership. With the COVID-19 crisis stretching out more than a month without any significant oversight in Congress, Pelosi appears to be facing a backbench revolt as House Democrats begin to wonder why Pelosi keeps them sidelined.
Politico noted the frustration this morning, as well as the Washington Post, which reported on it first. “We’re basically ill-prepared,” one House Democrat lamented, but so was everyone else. Other essential businesses figured out a way to continue operations, and Congress should have been no exception:
Yet amid the biggest national crisis in generations, the one branch of government where Democrats hold power has largely sidelined itself, struggling so far to adopt remote voting, Zoom video hearings or any of the other alternative methods that have become standard for most workplaces in the age of covid-19. No administration official has appeared at a congressional hearing in over a month. Committees have been unable to meet in person to debate and advance bills. There is no firm date for when the new oversight panel will start its work.
“I haven’t had a classified briefing in over six weeks,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, which needs to reauthorize the annual policy bill for the military. Crow said he has yet to get committee leaders to agree with his proposal to “open a nationwide infrastructure” for classified briefings for members of Congress, by using the secure rooms in regional FBI offices and military bases across the nation.
The frustration is evident among House Democrats, with many increasingly convinced that Congress is functioning as a shadow of its former self, with rank and file largely bystanders as party leaders hastily assemble massive spending bills. More than a dozen told The Washington Post in recent days that the House was failing to meet its constitutional mandate amid an epochal global crisis, abdicating power to the Trump administration as the nation demands strong political leadership.
That’s precisely what has happened. The New York Times finally figured it out almost two weeks ago, which one might have supposed would grab the attention of Democrats. Even so, most of them made their way back to Washington DC last week for a long-delayed vote on replenishing the Paycheck Protection Program, but then returned home without a peep of protest immediately afterward.
They’re peeping now, albeit mainly anonymously. (Profiles in Courage this ain’t.) The NDC has gone public with this letter to Pelosi, which emphasizes its support for a remote-voting system of some sort, but their concern sounds much more focused on the fact that House Democrats have become extraneous to the crisis. NDC leadership politely but clearly wants Pelosi start figuring out a way to get their majority back in the game Look for the barely-veiled slap at Pelosi’s “unanimous consent” strategy in this passage, for instance:
We understand your decision to postpone the vote on remote voting and Committee proceedings in order to pursue bipartisan discussions with your Republican counterparts, and we are hopeful those discussions will quickly lead to a bipartisan agreement. We acknowledge that changing the House Rules is not easy, but it is crucial in these circumstances. Organizations across the country have learned to communicate and make decisions remotely, in part because we as policymakers have encouraged them to. As we urge the public to observe social distancing practices, comply with shelter-in-place orders, and telework as much as possible, Congress must itself adapt to the public health threat our nation faces.
For the last several weeks, Members have been working hard to advance the interests and needs of our constituents from our districts across the country. Now we are eager for Congress to reconvene regular legislative proceedings that typically occur in Washington D.C. Now more than ever, Congress must conduct public oversight and legislative discussions. Congress needs to work to ensure the coronavirus recovery packages already signed into law are implemented appropriately and future packages are fully responsive to the needs in our communities. The House needs a temporary mechanism to move legislation and convene committee hearings and mark-ups remotely so that vital legislation cannot be hamstrung by relying on unanimous consent agreements.
That’s true whether or not Pelosi can get Republicans to agree on a remote voting arrangement. The time to address this has come and gone, however; it should have been addressed in mid-March. Now Republicans in both chambers want to stop playing unanimous-consent games and get back to normal legislating, even though they also agreed to recess Congress rather than remaining at their posts in the crisis. Mitch McConnell upped the stakes today with an announcement that the Senate will come back into session on May 4 regardless of what Pelosi does with the House:
The GOP leader said the Senate will “modify” its routines but will not try to legislate long-distance anymore.
“We will honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business in person,” he said.
Steny Hoyer shortly thereafter signaled the House to come to order at the same time:
“Mr. Hoyer just announced on today’s Caucus conference call that the House will be in session next week, beginning Monday, May 4th, and that votes are possible,” his office said on Twitter.
In other words, rule by unanimous consent appears to be over. Remote voting might still be a good idea for the next crisis. It’s time that the Brave Sir Robin Congress started showing up for this one.