Coronavirus anxiety is mounting on Capitol Hill.
Members of both chambers began returning to the Capitol for this week’s session on Monday, even as concerns about new coronavirus cases continued to grow. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Doug Collins (R-GA) have all announced plans to “self-quarantine,” or stay home in the coming days, after being exposed to an individual who tested positive for coronavirus at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) also announced Thursday she had met with a separate individual last week who has since tested positive for coronavirus. Brownley said she would be working remotely this week, along with her staff.
The unique role of the Capitol as a hub for visitors and a workplace for lawmakers (many of whom are older) has further compounded concerns. Capitol Hill is an extremely busy place; in addition to being an office for lawmakers flying in from all over the country, it’s also a destination for many tourists. The Architect of the Capitol estimates 3 million to 5 million people visit the Capitol each year.
Given their older average age, members of the Senate and House are also 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.”
At this point, the Hill feels a bit like it’s in a “holding pattern,” one Democratic aide told Vox. While staffers have been receiving intermittent alerts about the latest coronavirus developments, individual offices have also been prepping to ensure that teams can more easily telecommute and work remotely. No decisions have been announced yet about any type of extended leave or recess, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Monday there’s no reason yet to close the Capitol temporarily.
“Obviously members are concerned about what’s happening with coronavirus and its impact,” another Democratic aide told Vox.
Teleworking is one thing, but the fact remains that lawmakers need to be present to vote. The House and Senate have already approved $8.3 billion in coronavirus aid, but committee chairs are meeting with Pelosi Monday night to discuss additional measures Congress may need to take for Americans impacted by the virus, as well as the US economy.
“We can’t vote from home, however,” Pelosi told reporters last Thursday. “So it’s about security; it’s not about testing everybody who comes into the building. That’s not realistic.”
What Congress does will send a message
Congress is far from the only place where concerns about coronavirus are growing — and what lawmakers do in response is likely to send a strong message to the broader public.
If lawmakers were to head on recess, it could set an alarming precedent, according to one former Senate aide.
“I think it would send a terrible signal to the American people if Congress decided to go on recess for a few weeks while the virus works its way through the country,” said Jim Manley, who was a staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Manley also worked on the Hill during the anthrax scare lawmakers faced in 2001, and he noted that the ongoing operations in Congress helped demonstrate the government’s ability to continue functioning during a crisis.
It’s worth noting the anthrax scare had key differences with coronavirus, which is highly contagious and is affecting the country on a broader scale. Additionally, technological advances have changed significantly since 2001, making potential remote work more accessible.
Closing down the Capitol, or severely curbing its operations, is also not the only course of action in the near term. To reduce potential exposure to coronavirus, lawmakers could cut back on the number of meetings they conduct, the travel they do, and the events they take part in. Some offices are already beginning to take such measures.
There’s not a ton of recent precedent for Congress to physically shutter, though there’s been at least one case when the Capitol closed, in part. “I think it was actually 1918 that the Capitol was actually closed for health reasons,” Senate Rules Committee Chair Roy Blunt told CNN in an allusion to the Spanish flu pandemic that took place at the time. Back then, the House and Senate closed their public galleries and held intermittent pro forma sessions.
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 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, 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 work remotely 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.
Working remotely is one thing, but 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 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 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.