The coronavirus pandemic is putting more than 200 years of congressional tradition to the test.
According to an Associated Press report, freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) has gotten 45 lawmakers (including two Republicans) to sign a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) calling for the chamber to allow for remote work, including voting.
“There’s no reason not to model for our country what we’re asking our fellow Americans to do right now,” Porter told the AP on Tuesday.
That proposal — particularly the remote voting — would go against congressional rules that have been in place since the country’s founding, which mandate that House members and senators be present in the chambers in order to cast votes.
However, congressional leadership has so far poured cold water on the idea, shrugging off suggestions that two chambers full of mostly older people who constantly come into contact with constituents should take the same social distancing precautions as everyone else.
While Pelosi hasn’t yet publicly spoken about changing House rules, she has reportedly opposed the proposal in private. McConnell, in turn, told reporters Tuesday that the Senate would not allow remote voting, instead making allowances for extended vote calls so that fewer Senators at a time could enter the chamber at a time in order to cast a vote. “We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing Senate rules,” he said.
Porter’s letter takes a different view on the issue. “While Congress is an institution with a proud history, we cannot stand on tradition if it puts lives — and our ability to be the voice of our constituents — at risk,” the letter says.
The personal risk to lawmakers, should a wave of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, hit Congress could be immense. Older people are among the groups most at risk for severe coronavirus symptoms; the CDC and the White House advise people age 60 and older to stay home as much as possible.
“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.”
As Vox’s Ella Nilsen and Li Zhou reported last week, “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.”
Some lawmakers have already had coronavirus scares, while others are considering what happens when it’s not just a scare
Tours of the US Capitol were suspended last week, but several members of Congress have already had close encounters with the virus. Rep. Matt Gaetz, along with incoming White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who is still technically a member of Congress, got tested after coming into contact with a person at the Conservative Political Action Convention (CPAC) who has tested positive for Covid-19. Both Gaetz and Meadows tested negative, according to statements from both last Tuesday.
CPAC inadvertently became a vector for spreading the virus this year, even as many conservative activists mocked its seriousness onstage.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is now in his second stint of self-isolation. After coming into contact with an infected person at CPAC, he self-isolated for 14 days, as recommended by experts. But he had to go back into self-isolation once again after coming into contact with a different person who tested positive for the virus on his first day back on the job.
Colorado Democrat Rep. Jason Crow announced Wednesday that he too would self-isolate after coming into contact with an infected constituent. Two Capitol Hill staffers have already tested positive.
While Pelosi and McConnell may want to keep tradition intact, their hands may eventually be forced. If large numbers of lawmakers test positive and self-quarantine, or self-isolate after contact with an infected person, one or both of the chambers may not be able to have enough members present to conduct votes.
Article 1, Section 5 of the US Constitution requires 51 senators be present in order to conduct business. Not being able to meet that threshold may seem far-fetched now, but we don’t know for sure what the future of coronavirus may hold.
Rep. Gerry Connelly (D-VA) expressed similar sentiments to the AP Tuesday. “What seems unrealistic today may not seem so unrealistic tomorrow,” said Connelly.