In Congress, challenges of combatting coronavirus parallel fights across the country

The US has representative government; American history plays out under the Capitol Dome

Let’s begin with two, basic premises.

First, the U.S. truly has “representative government.” That is to say, the amalgamation of lawmakers sent to Washington from the four winds truly represent the attitude and vicissitudes of America’s diverse regions and cultures. Lawmakers in Washington mirror their constituencies, be they in New Hampshire or New Mexico.

The second premise is that American history plays out under the Capitol Dome in tandem with the rest of the country. There’s a mass shooting? Expect a debate about firearms. Police abuse? Police reform is on the docket.

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With an understanding of those premises, is it any surprise that Congress reflects much of the nation when grappling with coronavirus?

The Trump Administration’s faced criticism over the lack of a national strategy to stamp out the virus. There is consternation about people returning to work or toiling remotely. Questions arise about safety precautions. Testing is a challenge. Contact tracing is nearly non-existent. And fights erupt regularly at local drug and hardware stores over whether people should wear masks.

It should be no surprise that similar conundrums about coronavirus, proper health and safety measures, vex the workforce at the U.S. Capitol. This includes proper protocols for lawmakers, aides, Congressional operational and administrative staff, maintenance workers, custodians, groundskeepers, U.S. Capitol Police, and, in many respects, one of the largest cohorts of people inside the complex, the press corps.

The Capitol markedly beefed up security days after the April, 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Additional officers appeared outside the Capitol, even stopping and questioning passersby on the grounds. Barriers popped up to block traffic. Police permanently closed streets stretching between House and Senate Office Buildings.

Security forces really clamped down on Capitol Hill after 9/11. Sniffer dogs roamed the property. The Security budget ballooned. Police erected even more barricades.

And, in August, 2020, months after the pandemic clenched the United States and derailed everyday life, the U.S. Capitol is like every other workplace in America. The Capitol finds itself on an uneven footing dealing with coronavirus.

The Trump Administration offered lawmakers testing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) rejected that proposal. The Capitol is a political place. So, there was concern that accepting testing could create a bad “optic.” In other words, how would it look if the government was readily testing Members of Congress – but average Americans struggle to find testing?

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It might be appropriate for lawmakers to put others ahead of themselves in practically any other health scenario. But this is coronavirus. Testing wouldn’t be so much about protecting lawmakers themselves – although there is certainly a continuity of government issue to be made there. Remember that Pelosi and Senate Pro Tempore Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are second and third in line to the presidency, respectively. But what about protecting the general masses who work in the Capitol?

Remember that 535 Congressional offices basically operate like 535 separate companies – often with their own, de facto departments of human resources. This is why complaints exploded from Congressional aides about the safety of just coming to work inside the United States Capitol this week. Some Congressional offices forced workers to return, not practice social distancing and eschew masks.

And, no testing.

Major League Baseball cancels games if players on the St. Louis Cardinals test positive. MLB is conducting thousands upon thousands of tests with quick turnaround times. Don’t forget that this is the approach of a $10.7 billion industry, trying to protect the safety and welfare of multi-million dollar athletes. Major League Baseball also boasts a Congressionally-authorized anti-trust exemption.

But if you earn $22,000 a year answering phones in the Longworth House Office Building, work as a photographer for a newspaper and need to grab a shot of White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows when he visits the Capitol to negotiate with Pelosi, or make grilled cheeses on the griddle in the Senate Cafeteria in the Dirksen Senate Office Building….

Never mind that the quintessence of Congress creates an astonishing quandary, exacerbated during a pandemic. The word Congress means “coming together.” Well, every week, hundreds of members get on planes, fly to Washington, interact with one another all day in the halls of the Capitol. They then board planes to return to their states and districts. And then, those members get on another plane and return to Washington the following week.

Rinse and repeat. 

Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) fretted about day-to-day Congressional operations on Capitol Hill back during the spring.

“This is not mostly about protecting members of Congress. It is about protecting the people members might infect,” said Alexander. “Bringing 100 or 535 members from across the country to Washington, DC, a coronavirus hotspot, and then sending them home each weekend, creates a highly efficient virus spreading machine.”

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Hundreds of people, ranging from veteran lawmakers to junior aides, are infuriated that the U.S. Capitol remains a potential vector for the disease.

Would they not have hastily erected the street barricades after Oklahoma City? How about beefing up security following 9/11?

Yet with coronavirus...

This brings us to the positive coronavirus test of Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.

People who work on Capitol Hill – ranging from fellow Republican members to junior staff – are apoplectic at Gohmert. In fact, it would be hard to recall any incident in recent years on Capitol Hill which infuriated so many different people than what went down with Gohmert. It would be one thing if others perceived Gohmert as following proper health protocols. But Gohmert periodically displayed a cavalier attitude about masks when walking around the Capitol. That said, Gohmert had been seen more frequently with a bandana. Still, Gohmert was spotted walking into a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week behind Attorney General Bill Barr – both sans masks.

Gohmert’s positive test crystallized the problem on Capitol Hill. No testing. The Capitol may only be as safe as its weakest link.

What if Congressional security officials erected barriers to close off streets between the House and Senate Office buildings after Oklahoma City except Delaware Ave., NE, outside the Russell Senate Office Building? Well, it’s pretty easy to guess which roadway is vulnerable to a truck bomb.

The Capitol is really just a big grocery store where everyone shops each day. Chances are good you’ll be okay if everyone else shopping wears masks. But once things go south, the Capitol is probably no safer than the clubhouse of the Miami Marlins.

Not long after Gohmert’s positive test, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) announced he was positive as well.

The Gohmert incident prompted Pelosi to announce that masks were now required on the House floor. Questions abounded why it took until late July for the Speaker to impose that mandate. Then again, questions abounded back in March as to why the Capitol remained open to a flood of tourists stuffed into the Rotunda as the pandemic took hold.

This is where Congress is really just a microcosm of America – particularly during coronavirus.

Some people working from home. Some coming in. Some concerned about the hygiene and safety of others. Others not caring much. People grudgingly coming to work because they are worried about being fired. Congress has had everything but a viral moment in aisle 3 where a clerk fights with a customer who refuses to don a mask.

House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Capitol Attending Physician Dr. Brian Monahan ordered masks be worn in the House office buildings – although the mask policy is looser on the Senate side of the Capitol.

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But how is this mask issue actually enforced? Is someone really going to challenge a lawmaker if they aren’t wearing a mask at the Capitol?

Consider the House policy which long required male lawmakers, aides and journalists to wear a coat and tie when in the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor. House chamber security staff almost never stopped a House member cutting through the Speaker’s Lobby without a coat and tie. After all, they were a Member of Congress. But they sure held up every male member of the press whose sartorial decisions didn’t match the House rule. Thus, the only people mandated to don coats and ties for the Speaker’s Lobby…. were male journalists.

Pelosi also this week rejected calls for testing at the Capitol. She punted the decision to Capitol Attending Physician Dr. Brian Monahan. However, it’s clear Pelosi could order up testing for the complex if she wanted to. She contends Monahan doesn’t believe it’s necessary. When Paul Kane of the Washington Post asked the Speaker if Monahan would brief the press, Pelosi replied “that’s up to him.” Yours truly asked Pelosi whether Monahan was providing sound medical advice to allow the Capitol to operate as is with distancing and reject testing. Pelosi then cracked a joke.

“Well, we’re separated from each other,” said Pelosi, referring to several yards of space between where she spoke from a dais at her weekly press conference and the seating arrangement for the press corps. “I’m not coming anywhere near any of you.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), the top GOPer on the House Administration Committee, have pushed for testing since the spring.

“The House should have already had a plan in place to deal with this,” said Davis. “But a lack of leadership has put us behind. We’re behind private companies, like Amazon, MLB, Boeing, and many others have figured out some level of testing to protect their workers.”

American history unfolds inside the Capitol. It mirrors what happens in the country. Ordinary citizens now wage daily proxy skirmishes over masks while shopping. Mask wearing is more prominent in urban, more liberal areas. Less so in rural, conservative regions.

When you evaluate lawmakers who wear masks on Capitol Hill, most come from more left-leaning, urban and suburban states and districts. Those who weren’t wearing masks represented more rural, conservative turf.

As they say, all politics is local.

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The U.S. has representative government. American history plays out under the Capitol Dome.

And the challenges combatting COVID-19 in Congress parallel the fights across the country.