Congress Needs to Take the Lead on COVID-19

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz recently received some attention for wearing a gas mask on the House floor as a messaging gimmick during the novel coronavirus response emergency spending vote. He has been accused of “making light” of the disease and pending public health crisis while the virus bears down upon America and indeed days after his Fallout cosplay stunt on the floor of the House, one of his own constituents died of the virus. Matt Gaetz has defended his display (while still in mask) by pointing out that “members of Congress are human Petri dishes… we fly through the dirtiest airports, we touch everyone we meet, so if anyone’s gonna get coronavirus, it’s totally gonna be Congress.” And the truth is, he’s actually absolutely right about this, even if his methods are in poor taste.

This is not to say members of Congress are uniquely vulnerable — obviously those who work as flight attendants, medical professionals, or in the larger transportation or health industries are as vulnerable, if not more so — but Gaetz’s off color actions and glib comments1I neglected to mention that he also joked about Trump not similarly donning a gas mask because of “what it does to the hair” and advised spring breakers not to cancel their trips to his home state, stating, “In my experience, the things that you consume on spring break will typically kill the coronavirus.” If Gaetz is not a personification of the State of Florida and its unholiness, I don’t know what is. And I’m not just making an easy joke about Florida Man, I can say this, I lived there for five years. speak to a striking concern as to a lack of preparedness by the ones who are tasked with handling national crises. When I’m not writing about elections and members of Congress here at The Postrider, I make my living following members of Congress, congressional hearings, and government schedules professionally. And as the Centers for Disease Control have warned that COVID-19 fully descending on the United States will not be a matter of if, but when, I have noticed a stunning lack of precaution and preparation by Congress for the disease affecting its members and its conduction of business. As the last few weeks have been full of stories of large events being cancelled or delayed due to the virus, notably SXSW in mid-March, Google I/O in mid-May, and the release of No Time to Die, the nation’s lawmakers remain on course to power through their spring and summer schedule with brief recesses. 

Some of this is likely optics towards maintaining a steady hand and remaining calm under pressure as they passed the supplemental appropriations for response to the virus, which was quickly shepherded and near-unanimously passed by the House, the Senate, and then signed by the president over the course of three days. I hesitate to think that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and the Senate leadership have not at least considered adjusting the calendar in a situation where the virus hits hard and members of Congress are warned to avoid travel between their districts and the capital. But in a time where messaging from the White House has been unclear at best and dangerously mismanaged at worst, where national leadership on the issue has been absent or uncertain, and Americans are unclear on who to listen to or rely on during a potential public health crisis, Congress is in a position to take the lead. It would be comforting and astute for Congress to at least communicate to the nation and internally that it has contingencies in mind, despite this routinely being Congress’ busiest time of year.2Congress embarks on the lengthy and time-consuming budget and appropriations process in the spring and over the summer. 

As the branch closest to the American people, members of Congress are constantly traveling to and from their districts during recesses, as well as attending meetings, fundraisers, campaign events, votes, and functions, some of which have already been affected by the virus. The myth of the elected official working four day weeks, with a week off every month, and entire month-long recesses in August and October is a quaint misunderstanding of reality. Members often work 10 hour days and 70 hours per week while Congress is in session. 78% of members report spending at least 40 weeks per year back home in their districts, which seems pragmatic considering everyone who voted for them is there, as are 85% of their families. And, in case you thought this was just a bunch of Washington fat cats persistently seeking reelection, less than one-fifth of that time is spent on active campaigning or political activities. Remember, most of these members are not a simple train or car ride away. Many of them are forced to commute from California, Alaska, and Hawaii regularly, as opposed to those in the Northeast corridor like Joe Biden, who was famous for riding the 90-minute Amtrak back home to Delaware every night when he served in Congress. With over three-quarters of members traveling so regularly to and from their district, many members spending nights sleeping on the couches in their DC offices, or sharing residences with each other in DC, not to mention that many of the lower-paid Hill staffers who work for members of Congress and their committees cohabitate as well, all in incredibly public jobs, this is a sector primed for the quick spread of disease. If COVID-19 is to be taken seriously by Congress, the supplemental funding is a good start, but the leadership should lay out a plan for their members as well.

Watching the Weekly Leader, published by the House Majority Leader’s office, I’ve been on the look out for any notice or announced contingencies in the event it is no longer advisable for members of Congress to continue traveling or meeting in Washington due to an outbreak. Thus far, as expected, there has been none, but should the virus sweep the city and the country at large, leading to the types of closures other countries have endured, what would happen? Current House rules prohibit any kind of remote voting, though California Congressman Eric Swalwell and former New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce have submitted resolutions in the past to allow members to vote from their districts on select bills. Even if it were to become the policy of either chamber, there are constitutional concerns with this; Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution requires that “neither House… shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting,” and Section 6 notes privileges for those in “attendance”. Contingencies exist for physically relocating Congress if travel to DC were discouraged, but that linked report also dashes much hope for lawmakers assembling any way other than in one clustered room: “the possibility of remote voting… could require legislative or even constitutional responses.” 

If Washington, DC somehow became a hotbed of the virus, the Congress could physically move to another area on agreement between congressional leadership, specifically the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, as permitted by the 108th Congress in 2003 under House Concurrent Resolution 1. And if there were political or partisan tension or conflict surrounding when to convene, Article 3, Section 3 allows the president to, “on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.” A relocation still leaves a wide array of unanswered questions, the answers to which are largely classified, such as security procedures in such an event, not to mention conflict between a state government and a federal government as the seat of government is under the authority of the Congress. Quorum requirements are yet another nightmare, since the Constitution is quite clear that a majority is required for business in each chamber. If lawmakers are self-quarantining in their home districts, or if many were to succumb to the illness themselves, the reality of a crippled legislature unable to conduct any business is a serious reality. Both chambers generally operate on the assumption of a quorum, though members are entitled to ask if a quorum is present — which would provide a workaround in the event members decide to look the other way. This is not uncommon in daily proceedings as it allows for more efficient use of time by members who are off participating in events, hearings, or meetings during the routine proceedings of the chambers. Rule XX of the House contains rules for dealing with a situation in which “the House should be without a quorum due to catastrophic circumstances,” also allows some flexibility in adjusting the provisional number of the House. I don’t want to get into a deep dive of parliamentary procedure here but this is to say that in the event of a crisis there is something on the books for if members are incapacitated, though this could be potentially controversial (and lead to legal challenges, which in and of itself leads to another set of questions on if the Supreme Court can even meet), and does not eliminate the requirement for physical presence of members. 

The United States Congress is a complicated institution, and its relationship and reliance on the other branches of government are hard to understate, but this is why Congress should be clear about these issues and their own plans now. Agreement between congressional leaders as to how the schedule would change, how and where they would convene in a situation where Washington becomes untenable for a short time, or in the event a large number of members are incapacitated or otherwise spread across their districts is something they should get in front of now and clearly communicate internally and to the public at large.

Angst within Congress is starting to show after weeks of dragging, with several members self-quarantining in the near term, individual offices rolling out policies, and the respective party caucuses expected to bring it up with their leadership this week. And while the executive branch, which Alexander Hamilton prescribed as the unitary branch, the one most suited to manifest the “energy” and “safety” in a crisis has failed to manage the one potentially before the country, it falls to the people’s branch to take the lead. That starts with an appreciation as the public’s forum for how they will uniquely be affected by it, and must culminate with enterprising to address the scientific, operational, and physical realities of the situation. Congress is rarely proactive, but this crisis is an opportunity to live up to its expectations, it should communicate its plan before it is too late.