You mean the same Congress that just three months ago seemed obsessed with the argument that Donald Trump was a dangerous dictator who couldn’t be trusted with his office? Yes, some of us have noticed. While doctors and nurses, police officers and firefighters, and even grocery workers and restaurant workers risk their lives and health to provide essential services, members of Congress have acted as though constitutional governance is a non-essential business — and have abdicated their role to contribute to leadership in a crisis.
At any rate, both the New York Times and Roll Call have now begun to consider the implications of an AWOL Congress in a national emergency. The pressure to find ways to get the job done remotely have begun to escalate:
With Congress sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic and unable to return to the Capitol, House and Senate leaders are under increasing pressure from a bipartisan array of current and former lawmakers to shift to remote legislating, including using a secure online system to conduct votes. …
Good-government advocates see the moves as an imperative. Without a way to meet remotely, the House and Senate have no way to conduct oversight or act as a check on President Trump, who was impeached on charges of abuse of power and this week declared he had “total” authority to supersede governors’ decisions about whether to reopen their states.
“The choice is remote Congress or no Congress,” said Daniel Schuman, the policy director of Demand Progress, a progressive organization that advocates government transparency and accountability. “And if you have no Congress, you have what our founders feared most, which is an executive branch with no legislative check.”
If that’s the case, then the answer will remain no Congress, at least for the next few weeks. Even though the House has been studying this idea for weeks, and both chambers off and on since 9/11, Roll Call points out that remote voting would require a change of rules. And to change the rules, members have to show up under the current rules first:
House Democratic leaders appear to be accelerating the consideration of options for remote voting and hearings, but any decisions on how to proceed may still come too late for use during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We can’t do any of them right now because the rules will have to be modified,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “There will have to be agreement between the parties.”
House rules do not allow for the chamber to vote remotely or for committees to conduct formal hearings or business meetings without a physical presence. A rules change would require lawmakers to be in Washington to pass a resolution adopting remote work procedures — unless there were unanimous consent among members, which is unlikely.
So what? Call them back now. They should have settled this rule change at the end of last month, when they had to come back to Congress to pass the CARES Act. They should have stayed put at that point and done the jobs for which they asked constituents to elect them. With aid running out to small businesses and a pressing need for follow-up legislation, Congress should be working every bit as hard as the executive branch, as well as all of the people working on the front lines risking infection themselves.
But even if they came back strictly to enable remote voting, that would be sufficient. There’s no reason for them to leave their homes if they can work effectively from them. However, if you think they’re just sheltering in place and pining to actually do their jobs, here’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Chuck Schumer from yesterday, criticizing FEMA for not agreeing to their funding priorities:
I’m standing near Elmhurst Hospital in Queens with @RepAOC
Elmhurst is on the frontlines
The toll here is heartbreaking—with families paying the ultimate price
FEMA must approve our request for help for NY families faced with overwhelming funeral/burial costs they can't afford pic.twitter.com/9UsVXlo41l
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) April 14, 2020
Meanwhile, Schumer and Senate Democrats continue to block critical aid for small businesses and workers. pic.twitter.com/9Hwg7vevyW
— America Rising (@AmericaRising) April 15, 2020
If AOC and Schumer can stage photo ops on the streets of New York City — sans masks! — then they can bloody well get back to Capitol Hill and get back to work, at least long enough to arrange for remote voting and committee hearings. So can the rest of their colleagues. Any of them who don’t feel that their jobs are essential enough to take the same risks as grocery store workers and postal carriers are hereby invited to resign and put their uselessness into retirement. Governors can appoint replacements with more sense of duty and intestinal fortitude.
Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi sent a 90-second demonstration yesterday (at about the same time as the AOC-Schumer stunt!) on what seems to be more important to her than her job as the funds run out on the small business rescue package. Those are twin $5K fridges in which she’s hoarding her frozen goodies. Meanwhile, 17 million people have lost their jobs while Pelosi refuses to do hers. At least Trump’s still showing up, for crying out loud. Let them eat ice cream, indeed.
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) April 14, 2020
Update: I have a new theme song for this session of Congress: