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Sidelined by coronavirus pandemic, Congress cedes stage and authority to Trump

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/12/2020 Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane
a group of people standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to members of the media after departing from the Senate floor on Capitol Hill on April 9. © Tom Brenner/Reuters Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to members of the media after departing from the Senate floor on Capitol Hill on April 9.

Weeks into a pandemic that has upended American life, Congress is struggling to adapt to the country’s new socially distanced reality — hampering an entire branch of the federal government during a crisis of epic global scale and tilting the balance of power in Washington toward President Trump.

Congress has responded to the incessant spread of the novel coronavirus and its devastating impact on the economy by passing, so far, three progressively larger relief bills, culminating last month in the $2 trillion Cares Act. While Trump has commanded the stage at the daily White House briefings, party leaders have conducted frequent media interviews, committee chairmen have sent flurries of letters and individual members have scrambled to help their districts.

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But with lawmakers dispersed across the country, and with rules frequently out of step with modern telecommunications, the House and Senate are only starting to come to terms with how to conduct many of their most essential functions amid an extended national emergency.

“I just think it’s time for Congress to think differently about how we operate,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who has emerged as a prominent voice for remote voting and other changes. “Most of my constituents right now are working at least somewhat remotely. Some are entirely teleworking. Others are partly teleworking. So it’s not as though this isn’t being done. Congress is one of the few entities that has not been able to figure this out.”

Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have made clear in recent weeks that remote voting is not feasible in the near term, citing concerns of security, practicality and even constitutionality. But the disruption on Capitol Hill only begins with casting votes.

Committees have canceled dozens of scheduled hearings, most notably a March 31 session with Attorney General William P. Barr; confirmations of presidential nominees have ground to a halt in the Senate, and the intricate process of assembling the yearly defense authorization and discretionary spending bills — among Congress’s most important functions — has already been upended by the pandemic.

While both chambers have tentatively set a return date of April 20, a return that soon to business as usual is in grave doubt with medical experts recommending more time in lockdown.

Since most lawmakers left Washington last month, Trump has ousted two independent inspectors general, including the one tasked with overseeing the administration’s handling of trillions of taxpayer dollars in emergency relief.

The pandemic has only magnified Congress’s inability — or unwillingness — to check Trump’s actions as president. Even before the virus, Trump has declared a national emergency to take taxpayer dollars from the military and other accounts to build a border wall and installed acting officials to oversee critical departments and agencies, bypassing the confirmation process.

Now congressional leaders have narrowed their focus to assembling rescue legislation that has near-unanimous approval, thus allowing it to speed through procedural hurdles in largely empty congressional chambers.

But not all hurdles can be jumped: An attempt to pass the Cares Act by a voice vote in the House was complicated when one member, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), insisted on a quorum — requiring at least half of House members to gather in the chamber. On Thursday, McConnell’s bid to beef up small-business relief funding by $250 billion was blocked by Democrats who offered their own competing proposal.

Against that backdrop, calls for remote voting have risen from across the political spectrum. In the Senate, Portman and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic leader, teamed up to push for a remote voting option last month. In the House, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus sent a letter to both party leaders Tuesday, calling on them to “adjust our governing model” to allow for remote work. Members as diverse as Massie on the far right and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) on the far left have also voiced support for remote voting and other initiatives.

“We’ve seen that we’re not functioning at our full capacity, ” said Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley. “We need an entire infrastructure built out for Congress to function appropriately when there is a crisis and a lot of people can’t physically convene.”

Pelosi told reporters Thursday that any rule changes would need to be methodical and bipartisan. “Our rules are our best protection,” she said, adding: “If the rules need to be changed, that has to be done carefully.”

McConnell has voiced similar concerns about conducting official Senate business remotely.

Meanwhile, one of Congress’s most powerful tools has been completely sidelined: the public hearing.

Slideshow by photo services

In the days before House members left Washington last month, for instance, House and Senate committees conducted several well-publicized hearings with the heads of key agencies dealing with the virus. While congressional leaders have since spoken to those leaders by phone, rank-and-file lawmakers have had scant opportunity to hold officials to account.

“The framers intended for us to represent our districts and our states, and if the legislative branch isn’t being heard from, what happens is, obviously, power shifts to the executive branch more and more,” Portman said. “And I don’t think that’s consistent with the Founders’ notion of checks and balances and the separation of powers.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) asked the director general of the World Health Organization to appear before his Foreign Relations subcommittee to address the WHO’s response to the pandemic, in particular its dealings with China. But he did not set a date for the hearing, only that it would be scheduled “once it is safe to meet.”

Meanwhile, the timing of other key hearings is uncertain. Confirmation hearings await for John Ratcliffe, Trump’s nominee for director of national intelligence; Kenneth J. Braithwaite, his nominee for Navy secretary; and Brian Miller, his pick to oversee trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief spending as a special inspector general.

In the House, committees have gotten explicit guidance from the House Rules Committee that “virtual hearings” are not allowed under the chamber’s rules, which require the physical presence of at least two members of a panel to conduct a hearing. To defeat motions to adjourn, which are common in contentious hearings, a quorum of at least half a committee would need to be physically present.

Instead, panels have been told that they are better off holding “briefings” or “roundtables” that take place outside of the formal hearing procedures — but also are not considered official House proceedings.

In a bid to demonstrate what a remote hearing could look like, several experts involved in congressional modernization initiatives held a mock remote hearing over Zoom last month — recruiting former Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) to serve as “chairmen” of the panel.

Lorelei Kelly, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation who has studied congressional modernization for two decades, said the mock hearing was meant “to show that simply that this is something that can be done” — even if rolling it out in the middle of a crisis is infeasible.

Kelly said she hoped the pandemic would kick-start a long-overdue overhaul of congressional technology and operations: “What I’m hoping is that this event, right now, is the Sputnik moment,” she said, referring to the Soviet satellite that kicked the U.S. space program into high gear.

Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Friday that his focus is on the shorter term — looking at “how best to move forward with hearings,” while noting that changing the rules would either require unanimous consent or hundreds of lawmakers returning to Washington.

“Committees don’t need to wait to conduct oversight or hear from experts, though,” he said. “They can hold things like virtual briefings and roundtables today.”

Guidance in the Senate has been less explicit — but that chamber tends to operate according to precedent rather than on an exhaustive rule book, and there is no precedent for virtual hearings. Some senators have explored alternatives with varying degrees of success.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, which is tasked with the grueling process of writing the annual defense authorization bill, said last month that it would seek to hold “paper hearings” that would involve trading documents between senators and the Trump administration. But the committee announced Thursday that the Pentagon “has struggled to respond in a timely manner” to panel inquiries and that it would postpone those hearings “until the Committee has more clarity” on the pandemic.

Portman is planning to participate with several other members of Congress in a remote event next week organized by the bipartisan International Conservation Caucus to examine “wet markets” where live animals are sold for human consumption, a suspected source of viral outbreaks, including the novel coronavirus. But that event is not being held under the auspices of a congressional committee, and Portman said it will be “more like a briefing.”

The House Oversight and Reform Committee has held private video briefings with federal officials in recent weeks using Zoom, but only for committee members and staff. In a demonstration of how partisan politics stands to intrude, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) accused Democrats of putting congressional security at risk by using Zoom, which has been the subject of hacking concerns.

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the panel’s chairwoman, said Jordan’s staff “was consulted directly and repeatedly about using Zoom and never raised any concerns, so it’s unfortunate that he is now putting out inaccurate information.”

A Democratic committee aide said the briefings will continue, and the panel is exploring whether it can live-stream the proceedings to the public or publish video after the fact.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who routinely handles some of the most sensitive information in Washington, said he has been exploring conducting online proceedings on unclassified matters that would be “just like a normal hearing, except online.”

“But most of our hearings are classified, and those will need to be put on hold until we can all safely gather again,” he said in a statement.

Some committees have taken some preliminary steps to keep working. The House Appropriations Committee, which funds federal agencies, had already held nearly 80 hearings this year.

Spending negotiations will take place over the next few weeks via conference calls and video discussions. Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), the 82-year-old chairwoman of the committee, is learning how to use Zoom, an aide said, and some committee members have held telephone briefings with administration officials.

But appropriators in the House and Senate typically finish their work in marathon “markups,” where scores of members and aides assemble in a packed meeting room — debates that will be impossible to re-create in a socially distanced manner.

Pelosi, a political liberal, has acknowledged her institution’s innate conservatism in preserving customs such as the appropriations markup, and she summed it up for reporters Thursday.

“Let us hope that the blessings of technology will give us more options sooner to review,” she said. “We aren’t there yet.”

mike.debonis@washpost.com

paul.kane@washpost.com

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