Should Congress just shut down and wait for the COVID-19 virus to run its course? That is the topic of discussion behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in favor of keeping the lights on. When Rep. Jerry Nadler suggested that members of Congress could vote remotely instead of gathering to vote in person, Pelosi quickly shot that idea down. The idea is to present a sense of calmness from lawmakers to the public who are on edge over the COVID-19 outbreaks across the country.
“We are the captains of the ship,” House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Democratic lawmakers at a meeting, according to a person in the room. “We are the last to leave.”
There is also the fact that Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader McConnell have no intention of giving up the power they hold – especially the power to compel members to convene at the Capitol. It’s Washington, D.C. and it is always all about power. It is much more difficult to twist arms over the phone than it is in person, you know. The topic came up because members of Congress have been asked to come up with contingency plans to keep their offices open. Congress is in recess next week and some lawmakers are wondering if it is wise to travel back and forth rather than just extend the break for another week or so, especially since some go home to epicenters of the epidemic.
“I don’t think it’s the best idea for us to be flying back and forth,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat whose home district includes the hard-hit city of Seattle.
“It’s time for us to take some steps to figure out other ways that we can get our business done,” she said.
Jayapal said she held a telephonic town hall on Monday night that drew more than 4,000 participants and 120 questions.
Lawmakers in both parties are struggling with a solution to the problem – how does Congress continue doing the work of the people while taking precautions to keep themselves and others around them healthy? For example, many lawmakers are in their 70s and 80s which puts them in a category as being some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Leadership in both the House and Senate are older people. Pelosi and McConnell are both in their late 70s. Lawmakers travel back and forth to their districts and states and that places perhaps unnecessary risks to the folks back home, as well as themselves.
The House is distributing about 1,500 laptops to member offices for teleworking, and lawmakers have been given access to money left over from 2019 to purchase additional equipment.
A bipartisan pair of House lawmakers – Democrat Eric Swalwell and Republican Rick Crawford – have introduced legislation that would allow members of Congress to participate in committee hearings and vote on legislation from remote sites.
In order to conduct normal business, Congress requires a quorum – a bare majority of members present. They can arrange for unanimous voice votes, though, and that would allow Congress to function with a limited number of members present from districts around D.C. It happened during the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 when members were reluctant to return to Washington from their home districts. A deal was struck to allow legislation to pass with unanimous consent.
It’s understandable that Nadler would encourage working remotely for the time being – his wife is battling pancreatic cancer and is more vulnerable because of that. Jerry Nadler is 72 years old. Some lawmakers are voluntarily self-quarantining after learning they may have been exposed to the virus.
It seems to me that a rational way for lawmakers to deal with concerns of exposure to COVID-19 through interaction with groups of other people is to limit the exposure by continuing to work on Capitol Hill but make adjustments when possible. Remaining in D.C. is an option and that would restrict travel. Maybe closing the Capitol to large group tours is an option. Teleconferences with constituents are a perfectly reasonable option and are already done by many lawmakers on a regular basis, even before COVID-19.
None of the lawmakers are so important that they can’t take some time off if they begin to be symptomatic. My first response is usually “good” when I hear that Congress will not be in session – less chance of their regular tomfoolery. In this case, it’s reasonable to think that they can soldier on, at least enough to do what needs to be done to help the public health experts combat COVID-19 so life can get back to normal. They should do the same as the public is expected to do to limit exposure to the virus. Most of us aren’t looking to them anyway. We’re listening to the president, his administration, and public health professionals.