Is Nancy Pelosi making a huge mistake in the face of the coronavirus?
Despite the growing threat of the coronavirus and multiple members of Congress under self-quarantine after interacting with an infected person, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated that she doesn't yet have any plan to alter the day-to-day work of her chamber.
“At the present time, there is no reason for us not to continue with our vital legislative work in the Capitol,” she said in a letter to her colleagues Monday night. Earlier that day, she was asked if the Capitol should be closed or if it should change its operating procedures because of the virus.
"No, no, no, no, no, no. Do you understand 'no'?" she told a reporter. "At this time, there's no reason to do so."
She said it wasn't her decision to make and that Congress would depend on the opinions of experts.
The Senate, similarly, has not altered course to adapt to the emerging public health crisis.
But in a new piece for Lawfare, Margaret Taylor and Benjamin Wittes argued that Congress should be doing more to protect its members — many of who are, as it happens, among the demographic most vulnerable to the virus.
In particular, they argued, the Capitol should stop welcoming in outsiders who don't need to be on the premises and giving tours to the public.
"Lawmakers are right to be concerned that taking sudden, drastic action within the Capitol could cause panic among everyday Americans," Wittes and Taylor wrote. "They are also correct that the business of Congress needs to continue. They are dead wrong, however, that the Capitol needs to be open as usual to outsiders. It is dramatically irresponsible to allow members to be giving tours of the building to gaggles of people who will then fan out across the country. And it is also irresponsible to conduct hearings that don’t need to happen while an often lethal virus is spreading uncontrolled around the world."
More generally, the congressional leadership is wrong that the institution’s working presumption should be that staff and members should be congregating there for routine matters that don’t actually require physical presence. The presumption should be the opposite, as it should be for all organizations: the goal is to maximize social distancing in a fashion consistent with performing necessary operations. Staff who can work from home should do so. Members should be present only for votes and wholly necessary hearings.
Even recently, this would have been impossible. But modern telecommunications are a marvelous thing.
In that vein, it seems past time for Capitol Hill to give serious considerations to reasonable proposals to allow certain types of legislative work to be done remotely. For example, Reps. Eric Swalwell and Rick Crawford on Monday introduced a bipartisan House resolution that would change House rules to allow lawmakers to attend hearings by means of teleconference and cast certain types of uncontroversial votes remotely. Swalwell first introduced the resolution in 2013, but it has never gained traction. In fact, in 2014, Pelosi dismissed it and a similar idea—proxy voting—as a “slippery slope.” She may or may not be right that in the “regular order” such ideas are not a good idea. But situations of fast-spreading communicable disease may require something different than the regular order; it may be time to give such ideas a second, deeper look.
With President Donald Trump botching the administration's response to the crisis and spreading disinformation about the virus in an effort to protect his reputation, it's even more incumbent on Congress to act responsibly. Pelosi and the rest of congressional leadership need to act, and the stakes for the country are extremely high. If multiple members of Congress start falling ill and even potentially dying, panic could quickly spread in the country.
More and more companies are going to start suggesting or requiring employees to work from home and limit social contact, if possible. This could help slow the spread of the virus and mitigate its harms. Congress would be well-advised to set a good example and take prudent measures to protect itself.