Normally any Pelosi move that’s made chiefly at the expense of the GOP can be assumed to have a political motive, but I don’t know about this one. Given the average age of members of Congress, having an unmasked infected person wandering around a committee hearing room is a genuine health hazard with potentially fatal consequences.
It’s not hypothetical either. Republican Tom Rice of South Carolina had declined to wear a mask while inside the House chamber, telling reporters at the end of last month that he assumed he was safe so long as he kept six feet away from others. He announced a few days ago that he has COVID-19. An outbreak inside Congress could bring the national legislature to its knees.
The impetus for Pelosi’s order was new guidance issued last night by Congress’s attending physician requiring that masks be worn by anyone “in a limited enclosed space, such as a committee hearing room, for greater than 15 minutes.” Masks aren’t required on the House floor (yet) or in other areas of the Capitol since those spaces are larger, but committee rooms are smallish. Pelosi put some teeth into the new rule:
Late Tuesday, she asked committee chairs to require masks at all hearings — and authorized the sergeant at arms to bar anyone who refuses to cover their face, according to a senior aide familiar with the request.
“This requirement will be enforced by the Sergeant at Arms and non-compliant Members will be denied entry,” the senior aide said in an email to The Washington Post. “Ultimately, Chairs will have the option of not recognizing Members in committee proceedings that fail to comply with the mask requirement.”
Members who refuse to wear masks will be forced to participate remotely, via video. The rule was in effect at this morning’s House Judiciary Committee hearing:
“After this mark-up is over, we will go home to our loved ones,” [chairman Jerrold] Nadler said. “Wearing a mask helps protect them from serious illness as well. As chairman, I have a duty and responsibility to maintain order and decorum in our proceedings, which includes making sure that we conduct our business in a safe manner in light of the attending physician’s new guidance. I therefore fully expect all members on both sides of the aisle to wear a mask at all times that you are not speaking.”
Jim Jordan is a member of the committee but also a member of the GOP’s informal “no-mask caucus,” as most of the Trumpier Republicans in the House are. The new rule forced him to choose between the two. Per WaPo, he showed up this morning — and donned the mask. Maybe he didn’t need much convincing given the scare Rice is now experiencing but I’ll bet some populist in the caucus will make a show of defiantly refusing to wear a mask in hopes that the spectacle of being removed from the committee room can be parlayed into a Fox News primetime interview. Louie Gohmert? Andy Biggs? Matt Gaetz?
Whether or not Pelosi had a political angle in cracking down, there may be some political benefit to her *if* a meaningful number of House Republicans refuse to comply. Most voters are pro-mask. At last check, both national polling and the polling in certain red states found that people regard mask-wearing as a show of respect to those around you, not “weakness.” Having Pelosi crack down may also irritate Trump sufficiently that he’ll turn more hardline against masks in his rhetoric, which is apt to further alienate centrist voters. Maybe not — he’s been ambivalent about masks but has worn them occasionally away from cameras and his campaign is handing out masks to attendees at this weekend’s rally in Tulsa. But his instinct is to challenge or undo rules laid down by Democrats which he deems “politically correct” and this would qualify.
If Pelosi’s move does lead him into an anti-mask stance, it could come at a steep price. As much as she may want Trump on the other side of this issue for political reasons, it’d be bad for public health.
“The government has been handing out a complicated message,” Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, told me. “We’re asking people to open up as if the pandemic were over — while telling them that they still need to be careful. That doesn’t work; people want to hear one clear message. It’s natural for a lot of them to go for the simple message that it’s over and life can go back to normal.”
“If the president had consistently worn a mask, it would have made a difference,” he added. “If he had enforced social distancing at the podium, it would have made a difference. That was a big missed opportunity.”
Maybe that’s what Pelosi’s aiming for here, forcing populist Republicans to lead by example in hopes that that’ll make grassroots righties more comfortable with mask-wearing. What happens at Trump’s rallies is more important, though, I think. If the cameras show thousands of people in the crowd in Tulsa wearing masks this weekend, it might help further mainstream masks among the population. If instead the cameras show attendees refusing to wear masks en masse despite having had one issued to them upon entry, that’s a bad signal with bad political consequences for Trump potentially if an outbreak in Tulsa ensues. There’s an outbreak already: Tulsa County just recorded its highest seven-day rolling average of cases to date and it currently has the highest number of confirmed cases of any county in the state despite it being 20 percent less populous than Oklahoma County. Team Trump should insist that masks be worn if only to deny Dems an easy opportunity to blame POTUS for any further rise in Oklahoma’s numbers last this month.
Here’s former pro baseball player Aubrey Huff providing a clue as to why America just can’t seem to hammer down the daily case counts even though most European countries have done so. (Some profanity here, by the way.) Exit question: Will McConnell implement the same rule as Pelosi in the Senate? Or does he not need to? Most senators seem to be wearing masks voluntarily. Only Rand Paul, who had the disease and now believes himself immune, has made a point of not wearing one.
“I would rather die than wear a damn mask” — my God. We are effed if this type of person is half the country. pic.twitter.com/tZ684JhLSg
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) June 17, 2020