The coronavirus is changing the way business is conducted on Capitol Hill.
Capitol hallways, usually bustling with visitors at this time of year, are mostly empty as public tours have been canceled. Some members of Congress, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, are self-quarantining after coming into contact with individuals diagnosed with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and they’re now waiting for the results of their own tests. A handful of House and Senate offices are also making the decision to close down their DC offices and directing staff to work remotely.
But for all the changes, Congress isn’t shutting down entirely. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told lawmakers that as “captains of the ship,” they “are the last to leave.” Amid ongoing negotiations with the White House for a deal on a coronavirus relief package, many lawmakers remain.
While the House is set to go on a pre-scheduled recess next week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has canceled the Senate’s recess so the upper chamber can vote on a coronavirus relief package after the House passes it.
But with travel riskier because of the virus and with three senators already in self-quarantine, coming back to Capitol Hill may become more difficult in the coming days.
And given their older average age, members of the Senate and House are among the groups that could be most at risk for severe coronavirus symptoms. “Sixty-six senators are over 60 — two-thirds of the body — with more than a quarter over 70,” NBC News reports. “The average age of House members is 57.6 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.”
All seniors, especially those like me who are over 70, must take every precaution: we are the ones most likely to suffer the most severe complications from COVID-19 that will overwhelm the healthcare system. Please, follow strict social-distancing & even consider self-quarantine.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) March 13, 2020
Congress has long been reluctant to implement remote voting and other such practices, but the unprecedented circumstances presented by Covid-19 could force lawmakers to reconsider how they operate.
Multiple senators have closed their DC offices temporarily, and the Capitol is no longer open to the public
The reaction to the coronavirus has varied across lawmakers’ offices, but several senators have already shuttered theirs for the time being.
Sen. Maria Cantwell was among the first to do so after a staffer in her office tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this week. Cantwell and her staff have worked remotely since Wednesday evening, and others in the upper chamber have followed suit. Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Bill Cassidy, and Sherrod Brown are among those who have temporarily closed their DC offices, with staffers teleworking during this time.
“The most sensible course of action for the public and the congressional workforce under the circumstances is for my staff to telecommute,” Cotton said in a statement.
Beginning Thursday evening, the House and Senate sergeant-at-arms have also closed the Capitol building to all tours. Members, staff, and official business visitors will be the only ones allowed in the Capitol in the coming weeks. And the restrictions are set to stay in effect until April 1, pending further developments.
“The Senate and House sergeants-at-arms announced the suspension of public tours and nonofficial access to the Capitol complex beginning at the close of business today and running through the end of March,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Thursday. “I fully support the decision of these nonpartisan officers.”
Will Congress start working from home?
The question on the minds of multiple members of Congress and their staff is if and when they’ll get the green light from leadership for all of them to work remotely, especially if the coronavirus threat worsens in the United States.
“There has been guidance sent out on continuity of operations plans, ensuring offices have the resources they need to telework,” a Democratic aide told Vox earlier this week, adding that members of Congress have offered a number of ideas on that front.
Members who have reported being exposed to individuals with coronavirus are working from home, but it’s been on a case-by-case basis. Though Pelosi has said House members and other offices are updating their technology to be able to work remotely, there has been no decision made thus far on whether lawmakers will actually do so or if Congress will simply hold a recess to allow members and staff to stay home.
“In case, God forbid, but in case there is a need for people to work from home, all of the offices — not only congressional offices but offices that serve the purpose of the Capitol — will have the technology up to date in order to do that,” Pelosi said Thursday.
Voting remotely is another thing entirely. Voting is a huge part of the job of a member of Congress, especially during a massive public health crisis if more new funding or economic stimulus needs to be approved. Pelosi has already signaled there will likely be more coronavirus-related packages to come, which means lawmakers will need to return to Washington.
Pelosi said last week that members can’t vote from home, and House rules state:
Every Member shall be present within the Hall of the House during its sittings, unless excused or necessarily prevented, and shall vote on each question put, unless having a direct personal or pecuniary interest in the event of such question.
Despite a push for the ability to vote remotely in the past, those who have argued against it have long said that such tactics don’t allow for ample debate and discussion to take place. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) previously proposed — and has reintroduced — a bill that would enable lawmakers to take certain procedural votes remotely and videoconference during hearings, though it hasn’t gained enough traction to advance.
The emerging challenges posed by the coronavirus, however, could prompt lawmakers to give it — and measures like it — another look.