Congress' 'parliamentary distancing' in the age of coronavirus

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The Senate was in session last week. Then left. Then the House appeared at the end of the week. Then left, too. The Senate returned this week. Senators leave Washington later this week for a recess. And then the House is back in session next week.

You’ve heard of social distancing. Call this "parliamentary distancing."

Late last week, the staff of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., sent out an email to the press corps titled “See you in July? August? Later?”

The House of Representatives hasn’t met en masse very much since late March. There was a series of all-day votes in late April to approve the fourth coronavirus bill, to the tune of $484 billion. Then the House convened a marathon, 13-hour session on Friday to pass a staggering $3 trillion in coronavirus spending -- and permit remote hearings and proxy voting on the House floor. The protracted session consumed the entire day. The House stretched out its roll call votes to an hour apiece to practice social distancing. After all, the House couldn’t just have all 432 of its current members spilling into the chamber at once and then waiting around for the next vote. Instead, the House divided its membership into six blocks and spaced out when members would report to the chamber to vote.

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Buried in the House’s measure linked to remote hearings and proxy voting was a provision that allowed the House to adjourn at any time “from May 19, 2020, through July 21, 2020.” Team McCarthy highlighted this in its missive to the media: “If so, Happy Memorial Day, Happy Flag Day, and Happy Independence Day. See you after that, maybe?”

Not quite. That language McCarthy’s aides cited gives the House the option to just come back in July. But the GOP is hammering away at the narrative that House Democrats are asleep at the switch and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is back in San Francisco fixated on her personal stash of ice cream.

During an appearance on Fox News, McCarthy attempted to highlight how Republicans were running the Senate, compared to how Pelosi operated the House.

“The Senate is open. Starbucks is open. But not the House,” McCarthy said. “[Pelosi] wants to change how Congress works itself.”

That’s a reference to the proxy voting provision the House okayed along party lines on Friday. During the pandemic, if lawmakers can’t make it to Capitol Hill to vote, are sick themselves or are caring for a vulnerable loved one, they could, in essence, “phone in” their vote to members serving as proxies on the floor. The proxies would take the votes of those absent members, write them on a card and hand them in from the well of the chamber. Those holding the proxies aren’t permitted to deviate from how their colleagues want them to vote in absentia.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared that House members “were away from their duty stations” for two months. It’s actually good politics for the GOP -- mired for now in the minority -- to contrast the GOP-controlled Senate to the Democratically-run House. That plays to the image Republicans are trying to paint. Democrats are absent from Washington. And, when they do show up, they approve $3 trillion in spending.

“It would be nice if Congress could be in session,” lamented McCarthy at an event on Capitol Hill where he introduced two new GOP House members to the press corps. Reps. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., and Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., both won special elections last week. But, Garcia and Tiffany couldn’t have been sworn in unless the House was in session. The House, in fact, was in session Tuesday morning to swear in the new members -- by none other than Pelosi herself. McCarthy even spoke about the members from the floor.

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The Senate will be out of session next week for the usual Memorial Day break. But the House will meet for two days next week to deal with a bill to reform FISA and perhaps another coronavirus measure.

Fox News is told the House and Senate are informally alternating when they are in session in an effort to practice some degree of social distancing. The Senate met for most of last week, then vacated the Capitol on Thursday afternoon. That gave way to the House of Representatives meeting for a 13-hour session with multiple, hour-long votes on Friday. The key was not having both bodies meet at the same time.

“That reduces the virus footprint,” one congressional source said.

The Senate needs to physically be in session to burn through floor hours often mandated by procedural rules. However, the House can condense most of its debate into one or two days, even if it means lengthy, socially-distanced vote series.

Fox News is told the House was eyeing a return to a normal schedule sometime in June. But nothing is set.

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Even though proxy voting is allowed, don’t expect a skeleton crew of House members in attendance next week. Fox News is told to expect lots of members to show up when there are votes. Proxy voting doesn’t prohibit members from casting their ballots on the floor, in person.

But few Republicans are satisfied with the proxy vote option.

By the way, proxy voting is not a “rules” change, as described by some. It’s something the House calls a “standing order.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, delivered a fiery speech at a House Rules Committee hearing on proxy voting last week.

“You’ve got to have a majority present!” Jordan thundered. “You can’t mail it in. ‘Present’ means ‘present!’”

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House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., authored the new provisions on proxy voting. McGovern took issue with Jordan’s rhetoric -- and lack of a face mask.

“I would just like to remind the panel of the advice [Capitol Attending Physician] Dr. [Brian] Monahan gave -- that if the discussion becomes especially high-spirited in nature, we should wear masks. We release virus particles into the microphone.”

“Changing the Constitution should be high-spirited, Mr. Chairman!” Jordan snapped.

The House and Senate have never liked one another, regardless of if it’s today or the 19th century. And perhaps the coronavirus has temporarily given the House and Senate yet another reason to avoid one another.