Up until about four weeks ago, Rep. Lou Correa wouldn’t have hesitated to hug a tearful constituent as the woman described a problem she wanted his office to investigate.
But a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Santa Ana Democrat couldn’t do it. Instead, he wore a mask as he spoke to her, repeatedly reminded her to maintain six feet of distance and kept the conversation brief.
“It was very antihuman,” he said. “It is very [against] our nature as people who are social.”
Like all Americans, members of Congress — known for shaking hands and kissing babies — are embracing social distancing and learning how to do their jobs under stay-at-home orders.
They’ve traded in fundraisers, meetings and parades for far less personal telephone townhall meetings and conference calls.. They’re chasing down personal protective equipment for their hospitals from their kitchen tables, sending reams of letters to federal agencies and trying to conduct oversight remotely.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge) presided over a brief session of the House on Tuesday while wearing a black cloth mask, creating a striking image that looked like a zombie movie on C-SPAN.
Sherman said he wore the mask — which his daughter made using instructions from the surgeon general — not only because he was within speaking distance of other people, but also for symbolism.
“For people in L.A. to see me without a mask when the mayor is saying everyone has to — and [as of Friday,] it’s a crime not to. I didn’t want to undercut that at all,” Sherman said in an interview.
Lawmakers have quickly adopted their own day-to-day operations to work from home during the coronavirus crisis.
“Everything is a conference call,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), whose office has sent dozens of letters to administration officials on their response to the pandemic. “I’m on the phone all day long. And invariably in calls where it feels like a very substantial part of the call is: ‘Can you unmute yourself? Can you mute yourself? Who is doing the heavy breathing?’”
Members of Congress do TV interviews from home with earpieces hanging out of their ears. At least two senators — Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) — admitted they did interviews wearing a suit jacket and tie over sweatpants or cargo pants, respectively.
Lawmakers and their staffs have been meeting by phone or virtually to try to conduct business. But there are risks. Senate staffers were warned this week against using Zoom or MaestroConference because of known privacy concerns.
Lawmakers have gone to new lengths to try to be helpful in their constituents’ lives, particularly fielding questions about how to access recently approved financial relief for individuals and businesses. The first coronavirus tele-townhall hosted by Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-San Pedro) had 15,000 participants, a virtually unheard of number compared to in-person versions or prior tele-townhalls.
“We spent the next two days splitting up all the calls to call everyone back to try to get them answers,” she said.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) has posted videos explaining the response to the virus on the whiteboard she typically brings to committee hearings. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) — sporting what has been dubbed a quarantine beard — posted a 13-minute tutorial on how Congress works, aimed at kids home from school. Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) deployed with the National Guard, where is in the reserves. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) posted his cellphone number on his Twitter account, offering to talk with people having a hard time amid the crisis, citing concerns that suicide was up in his community.
While most aspects of life for lawmakers have changed, there is one significant element that might not: their frequent travel to Washington. Most members of Congress are home in their districts for a pre-planned break for Easter and Passover. It’s increasingly uncertain whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will call them back as scheduled on April 20, even as COVID-19 cases in the Washington region rise.
A growing number of lawmakers — including many from California — say Congress needs to approve a way to vote remotely during emergencies. Supporters of remote voting say it is not only risky to have upwards of 535 lawmakers get on airplanes during the pandemic, but that the Congress also needs to have a plan to keep government functioning during a crisis.
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“We have to have continuity of government as one of our highest priorities, and remote voting would allow for it,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance).
Fifty-two lawmakers signed on to a demand from Porter and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) to allow remote voting. And the Problem Solvers Caucus — a group of 50 lawmakers who posit themselves as bipartisan dealmakers — outlined ways to vote virtually and even how committees can meet electronically.
“Now that we have some time to digest and to think about [how Congress can function during a pandemic], members are hesitant to give up our constitutional obligations of representing our constituents, and just leave it to four people in a room,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a co-chairman of the caucus, referring to major bills that are frequently hashed out between the top four congressional leaders.
Pelosi has been much more skeptical of Congress voting remotely, warning that it is subject to cyberhacking and that legislation approved in such an untested format risks ending up in court and being thrown out as unconstitutional.
“We’re talking about our democracy… there is a bigger picture,” she said in a recent conference call with reporters. “We aren’t there yet and we’re not going to be there no matter how many letters somebody sends in, with all the respect in the world for that.”
Pelosi said rules changes need to be carefully considered, pointing to changes made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that took three years to be approved.
Short of remote voting, congressional committees are beginning to weigh whether they can hold hearings — including oversight hearings with administration leaders — through virtual technology. Both would require changes to House rules.