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‘I do worry about the optics’: Congress struggles to get off the sidelines

But so far, that’s exactly what has happened. Lawmakers have been limited to issuing strongly worded statements as Trump has sought to reshape a narrative about his administration’s early reluctance to take aggressive steps to tackle the coronavirus, which contributed to the massive outbreak the nation is suffering. He’s used his bully pulpit to assert the “total” authority to override states’ public health decisions and reopen the economy as soon as May 1 against the advice of infectious disease experts.

The frustration isn’t limited to the majority: A group of about two-dozen Republicans is increasingly restive and threatening to return to Washington ahead of the House’s return date to try and jump-start action.

Congress did, of course, already pass roughly $2.5 trillion to jump-start the federal government’s response to the dual economic and public health crises. And individual members have become crucial, influential advocates for their constituents as they deal with local challenges, such as medical equipment shortages in health care facilities and businesses on the brink of closure.

But as the crisis kept lawmakers homebound for all of April, leaders in both parties have remained resistant to allowing other business outside the Capitol — like electronic voting or hearings — to go on, raising concerns of security and institutional precedent.

The House and Senate are both slated to hold sessions on May 4, a delayed return that could slip further as the threat of contracting and spreading coronavirus remains high. House committees have issued demands for documents and testimony to aid their probes of the administration’s coronavirus response and to identify holes in the nation’s recovery effort. But public hearings have been on pause for weeks, and there’s little House committee leaders can do if the White House resists its efforts.

What’s emerged in the absence of policymaking is a boisterous inside-baseball debate over House procedures: namely, whether lawmakers are even constitutionally permitted to cast votes remotely. House Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern (D-Mass.) recommended Thursday that the House adopt a “low-tech” remote voting procedure to allow those in the Capitol to cast votes at the direction of their far-flung colleagues.

Such a process might draw challenges and would require the full House to convene in order to approve such a rule change. And some members said it didn’t resolve problems like House committees being unable to meet and debate legislation remotely. One lawmaker called the idea “bullshit.”

McGovern’s push followed steadily rising complaints from lawmakers eager to take actions of consequence while their constituents are struggling. Earlier in the week, roughly 20 members, led by the House’s most vulnerable moderate members, proposed a resolution directing House leaders to come up with a plan — any plan — to allow remote congressional activity.

Rank-and-file lawmakers are also clamoring for a way to conduct congressional hearings from afar, a platform that would at least allow members of the public to see their lawmakers at work, pressing for answers amid the pandemic. But there’s no agreed-upon system for such hearings, which would also likely require a rules change. And some video platforms have been flagged as potential security risks, leaving some lawmakers skittish about holding online hearings.

“People think we can do Congress by Zoom. Zoom is a Chinese entity that we’ve been told not to even trust the security of. So there are challenges. It’s not as easy as you would think,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week on MSNBC, referring to the online video conference platform.

Some lawmakers have made plans to hold remote events anyways: Starting next week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus will livestream a series of unofficial hearings on Facebook, featuring public testimony on issues like their national paycheck guarantee plan.

But vulnerable Democratic incumbents are especially worried that the public will view them as shirking their responsibilities, even as they spend full days working the phones to help hospitals, businesses and other local leaders.

“I do worry about the optics,” said Rep. Anthony Brindisi of New York, a freshman Democrat running for reelection in a Trump district. “People expect Congress to be working, and we absolutely are right now, but we also have to be voting and conducting hearings and oversight.”

Voting by proxy would be a “good first step,” Brindisi said, though he stressed that more needed to be done. “We need to adapt and conduct business like the rest of the world is right now.”

Some lawmakers, particularly institutional veterans, have argued that Congress is simply limited in what it can do under the extreme circumstances, acknowledging that the two bodies must return to their chambers to conduct business.

“I think the Constitution clearly anticipates that members would be present,” Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters in a deserted Capitol this week.

Blunt said the Senate is looking at ways to hold remote hearings but that Congress had already dismissed the idea of voting away from Washington in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks: “We’ve dealt with these issues and even more difficult scenarios than whether you should get on an airplane or not because you might catch a virus.”

“We’re working in a challenging environment,” added Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “It’d be preferable if we were not in this situation. Given the circumstances, we’re adapting as best we can.”

Some Democrats also worry they’ve been sidelined for one of the most consequential decisions of all — how and when to reopen the economy, a move that could rescue millions of constituents who are facing unemployment but also risk a resurgence of coronavirus infections if handled incorrectly.

“The president skipped over Congress’ role when he basically said, ‘I will compel states to reopen when I want them to,’” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is leading a push among Democrats to reassert congressional authority over the critical decision. “To the extent there’s a federal role in reopening America, that role is to be defined by Congress.”

Not all lawmakers agree that it is Congress’ role, saying the legislative branch can do little more than exert pressure on the administration from the sidelines of its battle with state executives and public health experts.

“Ultimately there are things the president can do that we cannot control,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark of Massachusetts said. “But what we can control is our response, continuing to put American families first, continuing to stand with our governors.”

But Raskin — along with Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Donna Shalala of Florida, Anna Eshoo of California and Peter Welch of Vermont — have drafted a bill to directly challenge Trump’s powers to oversee a state-by-state process allowing millions of people to slowly emerge from their homes into shops, schools and public transit, by putting it in the hands of Congress instead.

Raskin acknowledged, though, that neither the House nor the Senate can take up that bill for a vote or even a debate until lawmakers are able to safely return to Washington.

“That is the challenge of the next few weeks,” Raskin said. “We’re not here. It is a real problem.”

Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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