How about reopening Congress while reopening the rest of America? Tired of getting sidelined in a chamber where they have little leverage in the first place, a handful of House Republicans plan to protest the Brave Sir Robin Recess in Congress this week, Politico reports. The anger over a lack of access to legislative decisions began rising last week as money ran out of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and is building up to a confrontation this week:
Republicans have been calling to reopen the economy — and now, they’re demanding to reopen Congress. A group of House Republicans traveled back to D.C. early and are planning to seek recognition on the floor during today’s pro forma session. Their mission: they want to ask about “the status of the House reopening,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) tells your Huddle host, while also drawing attention to Democratic leadership’s decision to keep lawmakers away from the Capitol while small business aid has stalled.
The backstory: Last week, Mast started venting his frustrations about being stuck on the sidelines during the pandemic and recruited some of his GOP colleagues to return to Washington early this week in protest of the extended recess. Mast pitched the idea to GOP leadership, who held a conference call over the weekend with other top lawmakers to discuss whether — and how — they should be involved. (One member raised concern it would look like a “ragtag” effort, according to a source familiar with the comments, but Mast said the push “absolutely” has the backing of GOP leadership.)
Fellow Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz signaled the attack yesterday, Politico notes:
We've known the #PaycheckProtectionProgram was running out of money for over a week.
While FL businesses beg for relief, @SpeakerPelosi & Dems comfortably collect their govt paychecks.
— Michael Waltz (@michaelgwaltz) April 20, 2020
Mast acknowledges that his rebellion will have little chance of impacting Pelosi on restarting Congress in the short term, since Pelosi (or whichever Democrat is presiding in today’s pro forma session) can simply refuse to recognize Mast or the other Republicans. That doesn’t make this protest useless, however, especially after Pelosi’s unbelievably dumb decision to show off her wealth and status in an appearance on James Corden’s streamed show last week. In a week where jobless claims hit 22 million in a month’s time, Pelosi’s message certainly seemed to be “Let them eat ice cream” indeed.
The House GOP should have been pushing for a couple of weeks for Congress to get back to its work in the middle of a national crisis, but even if this is a bit late, it’s still an argument that should be made. In fact, it should have been made by GOP leadership in both the House and Senate, who have been relatively silent on the recess. Politico notes that Mast’s efforts have leadership backing, but it would be more effective to have leadership leading on this point.
The House will return by Thursday anyway to vote on the new deal to replenish PPP, which ran out of funds long before Pelosi ran out of ice cream. Not only will they consider the deal but also how to conduct business during the pandemic. Roll Call reports that higher-tech solutions have been discarded in favor of the personal touch:
The House is expected to vote as soon as Thursday on a major, but temporary, change to the chamber’s voting rules to allow for proxy voting as travel and large gatherings continue to pose public health risks during the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers are expected to have to return to Washington this week to vote on an update to coronavirus pandemic aid for small businesses, and House leaders plan to use the session to also approve an emergency proxy-voting procedure in response to the health crisis. The change would allow an absent lawmaker to designate a colleague to vote on House floor matters on their behalf.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., announced late Monday night that if the Senate passes the small-business aid in their Tuesday pro forma session, the House could meet as soon as Thursday at 10 a.m., when a proxy-voting resolution may be brought for a vote.
Proxy voting would require each member to deputize a colleague in the chamber as their proxy, with specific written instructions on how to vote in each instance. The letter could come electronically (fax or e-mail, presumably), but it would have to be physically presented at each vote. Lawmakers discarded the idea of simply investing their caucus leader with a blank-check proxy, perhaps a result of watching Pelosi play games with unanimous consent to delay action on PPP and other relief efforts.
Why not just have each member vote remotely via electronic means? The House hasn’t had time to test that out thoroughly enough, members claim. Why, it took them three years just to allow electronic voting inside the chamber itself:
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, told CQ Roll Call in a statement Monday night that the changes to voting procedure should not be made in haste.
“A change of how Members of Congress vote cannot be made overnight, as we saw from the three-year process it took the House to implement the electronic voting system currently used in the House Chamber,” said Davis, who also serves on the Select Committee on Modernization of Congress. “We must first mitigate risks, test the process extensively, and consider the overall integrity of a vote by proxy system.”
It took them three years to test and implement the current, in-house voting system? Good Lord. That would make for an absurd joke about government operations if it weren’t true. Bear in mind, though, that the need for these kinds of systems in the case of emergency has been recognized since the 9/11 attacks almost nineteen years ago.
At least they’re taking some action now, even if it ends up being the clunky proxy system that Roll Call describes. Congress has made itself into a non-essential business in this national emergency and has fouled up relief and mitigation efforts by their absence. They should have remained in session all along rather than skedaddle while ordinary Americans paying their salaries put themselves at risk in hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants. Even if Mast can’t get the floor to shame them for going AWOL, the shame remains nonetheless.
Update: Good news:
NEW: House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer says House members have been advised to return to Washington, D.C. for a Thursday vote on the interim coronavirus relief package, and he’s expecting a large number of members to return. https://t.co/EAUp9F16jN
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) April 21, 2020
And they should stay on the job until the crisis is over, too — just like doctors, nurses, truckers, grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, and so on.
Update: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has now publicly called for Congress to resume its work, albeit somewhat gently:
With the House now in its fourth week of regular session being suspended, I am writing to request that we work to establish a clear, safe, and effective plan for reopening Congress.
In my view, conducting the business of the People’s House is the definition of “essential work”—just as many of our friends and neighbors continue working to hold up our communities on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, members have yet to be given specific guidance as to how Congress will fulfill its core duties—from deliberation to oversight to legislation—over the coming days and weeks.
Since the onset of this pandemic, Congress has worked expeditiously to undertake the largest relief effort in our country’s history. Nevertheless, I think we can agree that our institution’s current posture cannot and should not become the norm.
It shouldn’t have become a “norm” at all.