Congress wants to protect Americans from the coronavirus. But can it even protect itself?
As the United States passed the grim milestone of 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week, cases continued to tick up in the nation’s capital.
A test kept a Republican member of Congress infected with the virus from getting within reach of the president. And negotiations over a trillion-dollar relief package that could make the complex a safer and more effective workplace have devolved into election-year finger-pointing.
To adjust to the new realities of governing during a pandemic, lawmakers instituted new mandates that House members and congressional staff wear face coverings. Some offices and committees altered their practices to ensure social distancing advised by health professionals.
But Congress is still struggling to keep the virus away from the halls of power.
“The rubber hit the road this year, and they weren’t ready for it,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at the left-of-center group Demand Progress. “This is still insufficient for something that can be another year or more.”
Documented outbreaks of the virus on the Hill have been limited or nonexistent, but there have been notable cases. Ten lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and two senators through antibody testing found evidence they had been previously infected. Dozens of staff, Capitol police, and construction workers renovating the Cannon House Office Building also contracted the virus. Gary Tibbetts, a special assistant to Rep. Vern Buchanan, died of COVID-19 last week.
Following Rep. Louie Gohmert’s positive diagnosis Wednesday—the Texas lawmaker was set to fly on Air Force One with President Trump—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tightened precautionary measures around the Capitol, but has stopped short of expanding testing.
In a May joint statement, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined an offer of rapid coronavirus tests from the White House, saying that they wanted resources to go to front-line facilities.
Pelsoi said Wednesday that any decision to implement testing on the Hill will need to factor in staff as well.
“It's the members of Congress and support staff, and that’s very many people,” she said on CNN. “We can’t say, well, as members, we should get tested but the other people shouldn’t.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called for more testing Thursday in a letter to Pelosi. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a McConnell ally who chairs the Senate’s health committee, also said there should be more testing on Capitol Hill.
“I suggested to the leader several weeks ago that I thought we all should be tested when we go home so that we’re not carriers coming back and forth,” Alexander told reporters Wednesday. “And I’ve talked to [congressional attending physician Brian] Monahan who said tests are more available today than there were.”
On Wednesday night, House leadership ordered members and staff to wear face coverings at all times when in Capitol office buildings, a change from the mandate to use coverings on the House floor and during committee meetings.
Mandating mask wearing is one thing, but requiring testing may be more difficult to impose upon members, said Charles Tiefer, law professor at the University of Baltimore and former acting House counsel.
“There’s no existing legal or administrative structure for directing members, mandatorily, to all take tests,” he said. “Those who oppose tests could decide to make a fight about it.”
Tiefer said congressional leaders could institute some kind of testing program through the administrative committees and the sergeants at arms, but it would need buy-in from both the majority and minority to be effective, especially in the House, he said.
There is some basic virus testing done at the Capitol, but a mass, rapid-testing regime isn’t a panacea for lawmakers to return to regular work, a House Democratic aide told National Journal.
“The idea that if we just procure rapid-testing machines and Congress can go about its business, that’s just not feasible,” said the aide, who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “It seems to be the most reasonable way to respond to this is to continue maximizing virtual operations.”
When the White House offered rapid-testing machines and supplies earlier this year, they offered three machines and 1,000 testing cartridges made by Abbott Laboratories. Even at 15 minutes per test, testing every member and staffer on the House floor during votes would take more than a day, and 1,000 cartridges would last about two days, the aide said. The House would need about 4,000 tests to operate for one week, they said.
Instead, Congress has altered the way it does business in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus.
The Office of Attending Physician in May issued recommendations that Congress, upon its return to Washington, follow public-health guidelines to maintain social distancing. But the ultimate policies are up to each individual member’s office.
Nor are members required to disclose their policies. Seventy-four senators’ offices did not respond to questions sent Thursday about whether they’re complying with Monahan’s recommendations. A spokesperson for Sen. Lisa Murkowski declined to comment but said the Republican “takes the health and safety of her staff and the Alaskans that interact with the office extremely seriously.”
Among the 26 who responded, spokespeople for Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray, Ron Wyden, Sherrod Brown, Angus King, Rob Portman, Jeanne Shaheen, Jon Tester, Tim Kaine, Sheldon Whitehouse, Jeff Merkley, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Manchin, Bill Cassidy, Maggie Hassan, and Kyrsten Sinema told National Journal that most or all of their staff are teleworking, and those that come into the office are required to wear masks.
Spokespeople said Sens. Lindsey Graham and John Boozman have similar masking requirements. Graham and Boozman’s office are also flexible on telework, and Graham’s state offices are operating at half in-person capacity. Sen. Ben Sasse’s office, largely teleworking, encourages and provides face coverings when meeting. A spokesperson for Sen. Rand Paul, who recovered from COVID-19 and is one of the few senators not to wear a mask around the complex, said his office is following Monahan’s recommendations.
Sen. Tom Carper’s office is “abiding by a maximum telework policy,” a spokesperson said, and no staff are required to be in the office or travel on his behalf. A spokesperson for Sen. Ben Cardin said he is “encouraging all staff” to telework. Sen. Bob Casey’s offices “remain in a period of extended, enhanced telework,” according to a spokesperson. In Sen. Pat Toomey's Washington office, masks are worn when “limited” staffers are in the building, while state offices “are open with strict social distancing procedures in place,” his spokesperson said.
Feinstein and Boozman took the step of suspending their internship programs. Murray, Cassidy, and Sinema are not requiring staff to travel, and Feinstein’s official travel “is kept to a bare minimum where essential.” Wyden and Kaine’s staff sometimes work in-person events but are not required to travel, their spokespeople said. Toomey’s staff travel has been “significantly curtailed,” and only a “willing, limited amount of staff” accompany the senator around Pennsylvania, the spokesperson said.
That patchwork jurisdiction has left congressional staffers anxious about their and their families’ health, said Marci Harris, CEO of citizen engagement group POPVOX.
“Three months ago, I had a long list of anonymous messages from staffers saying that they were scared, that they didn’t know what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed, or they weren’t getting direction on whether they should come or not come in,” Harris said. “I think we’re seeing some of the management issues that have existed for years in congressional offices. Now it’s not just a question of being uncomfortable, it’s a question of their safety.”
Congress over a month ago ran out of money dedicated to cleaning the sprawling complex, and millions in additional funding have been caught in the lagging negotiations between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration over a new coronavirus-aid package.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby introduced legislation Monday as part of Republicans’ proposal that dedicated $77.7 million to the legislative branch. More than half of the funds would be for the Architect of the Capitol to purchase cleaning and protective equipment, and another $6.3 million would go to the Senate sergeant at arms for costs associated with teleworking and remote hearings.
The House’s HEROES Act passed in May would provide $5 million to fight the pandemic on Capitol Hill.
Leadership, meanwhile, has implemented changes to varying degrees of success to allow lawmakers to deliberate remotely.
The House passed a temporary rule change in May allowing members to vote by proxy. The move has been embraced by Democrats, with about 70 members voting by proxy on a typical voting day. But only one Republican has opted for a proxy vote. On Wednesday, Florida Republican Rep. Francis Rooney’s procedural vote on a spending package was cast by proxy by Democratic Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia.
House Republican leadership has discouraged using the proxy-voting system, and a lawsuit filed by Republican members opposing the rule change is working its way through the D.C. District Court.
Committees have also embraced virtual or hybrid formats that allow lawmakers and witnesses to participate from their offices or homes. Experts on government accountability gave Congress high marks for its transition given the circumstances.
But a number of high-profile hearings have had technological difficulties. Wednesday’s blockbuster House hearing with tech CEOs started an hour late because of unspecified technical issues, and had to take another break an hour and a half in to fix the “technical feed” of one of the witnesses. The House Homeland Security Committee had a hearing with top Immigration and Customs Enforcement contractors earlier this month with a livestream that was barely audible. And when the House Foreign Affairs Committee met to discuss arms sales to the Gulf last month, the live feed collapsed entirely.
“Committees have struggled with all the same problems the rest of us have faced adapting to the virtual environment, except it’s members of Congress asking each other to unmute themselves,” said Zach Graves, the head of policy at the center-right Lincoln Network.
UPDATE: This story was updated Friday morning with additional information from Sen. Pat Toomey’s office.