Congress is in a perilous place with the coronavirus pandemic, and appears unable to do anything serious about it. To meet in the Capitol to debate and vote is dangerous. There is a combustible combination of difficulty and risk in traveling long distances, especially by air; the particular vulnerability of older members, who make up a large share of the House and Senate, and the reality of members and staff in close quarters. The danger is not just to them, but to their families and all who come into contact with them.
The alternative as of now is to pull together the constitutionally required quorum of half the members. But that may not be possible — which would leave America without a Congress just when it is most urgently needed.
The congressional physician recently warned leaders of the danger of meeting. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer took his strong advice and kept the House shuttered, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, determined to jam through more right-wing judges, ignored the physician and brought the Senate back physically despite the clear health risks and the objections of many of his colleagues.
House Democrats want to do their jobs
The House earlier seemed ready to allow a form of remote voting by proxy on the floor, and remote meetings, including oversight, by committees. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed the vote in the face of vehement objections by Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Pelosi then created a bipartisan working group to find consensus, which McCarthy quickly demolished. He made clear in a statement and an op-ed that he and Republican leaders would oppose both any remote voting or meeting of the whole House, and any remote formal hearings by committees.
Social distancing protocol at a Senate Armed Services hearing in Washington on May 7, 2020.
Of course, there are legitimate questions that need answers about the best ways to meet and vote securely, using the best available hardware and software for members and staff, with appropriate transparency and protection of the rights of the minority party and rank-and-file members. And the divisions over remote meeting and voting are not entirely partisan. In the Senate, the prime vehicle to authorize emergency procedures like remote voting is co-sponsored by Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois.
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In the House, the bipartisan Problem-Solvers Caucus is conducting its own informal floor debate remotely to show it is workable. But there is a clear divide at the top: Democratic leaders in both houses want to find a way to ensure Congress can do its job, Republican leaders do not.
Pandemic used to block accountability
Nick Confessore’s stunning story in the New York Times about the ineptitude and corruption of the Jared Kushner “task force” sheds some light on the motives here. It depicts a group of incompetents with no knowledge of viruses or supply chains, instructed to give a green light to friends and supporters of the president over credible and reliable sources, resulting in disruption of supply of critical protective equipment and at least one state, New York, bilked out of tens of millions of dollars. Oversight hearings in the Democratic-led House would dig more deeply into this shocking behavior.
Trump himself has blocked House testimony by coronavirus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and fired inspectors general and other officials (including immunologist Rick Bright, a Department of Health and Human Services whistleblower who had pointed out misconduct in the HHS response to COVID-19. He is doing whatever he can to stymie any independent examination of his team’s actions, with help from his allies in Congress.
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McCarthy and other GOP leaders opposed a special panel set up by majority Democrats to look into the Trump administration response to the pandemic. The members finally named to it, led by Reps. Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, have made it obvious they will to try to block any real investigation into malfeasance and corruption.
If the House can’t operate remotely, Trump will have a freer hand to act by fiat. If it can, House members could have a real debate on the challenges we face and respond to urgent needs in a meaningful way. And not least, it could conduct robust oversight of failures in testing, vaccine development, supplies of protective gear and medical devices, and the administration of trillions in relief — and in some fashion check a president who believes his powers under Article II of the Constitution are absolute.
But this will not serve Trump’s purposes. His See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil allies in Congress agree.
No wonder they oppose any means for Congress to operate during a pandemic that has killed over 82,000 Americans and put 33 million out of work — so far. God forbid the House investigate what’s gone wrong, help us get out from under this crisis and put some limits on this administration.
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author of “One Nation After Trump” and “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.” Follow him on Twitter: @normornstein
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Republicans block House operations, enable Trump corruption