GOP Leaders Present Strategies to Reopen Congress During Coronavirus Pandemic

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) holds his weekly press conference on Capitol Hill on March 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — alongside Republican leaders Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK.), ranking member of the House Rules Committee, and Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), ranking member of the House Administration Committee — on Monday outlined a plan to reopen the People’s House during the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrat House leaders last week decided against returning to D.C., citing coronavirus-related concerns.

“After hearing from our members and consulting with the speaker and the attending physician, the House will not reconvene next week,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) stated last week. “We will return once the CARES 2 package is ready.”

He said in a statement that they “hope to come back very soon.”

McCarthy, alongside Cole and Davis, said Republicans recently called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to “establish a clear, safe, and effective plan for reopening the House of Representatives.” In the meantime, “a bipartisan taskforce has been convened — on which we are all serving — to further explore ways in which Congress can operate during this challenging time,” the GOP leaders said. They noted that differences remain but that all members of the task force “share several fundamental beliefs”:

First, the business of the People’s House is “essential work” that must not be sidelined or ground to a halt.

Second, there is intrinsic value in a Congress — a physical meeting of people and ideas — that should be dutifully guarded.

And third, any changes to centuries-old rules and precedents of the House should be done in a deliberate and bipartisan way.

The Republicans proceeded in outlining four strategies to get Congress back to work, based on the advice of public health experts and guidance from “parliamentary experts with decades of combined House experience.”

The first strategy calls for the modification of “existing practices and structures,” examining occupancy levels, and keeping an “eye towards possible reconfigurations to accommodate physical distance.” Congress has already demonstrated its ability to maintain proper social distancing, they noted.

The plan also calls for a phased return with committees.

“Each committee should present an outline to the Majority Leader detailing their projected business meetings for the month ahead, along with estimated attendance levels,” they said in part.

The plan also outlines a “Deploy Technology in a ‘Crawl, Walk, Run’ Progression,” cautioning the sweeping use of technology but proposing the use of “hybrid” hearings:

In our view, technology should only be deployed in a “crawl, walk, run” progression. Before we rush to discard over 200 years of precedent, we should require that rigorous testing standards be met, ample feedback be provided, and bipartisan rules of the road be agreed upon and made public to truly safeguard minority rights.

We believe “hybrid” hearings — an idea initially proposed by Democrats on the taskforce — could serve as a useful proof-of-concept to consider, similar to the model currently being used in the United Kingdom to facilitate virtual question time in the House of Commons.

For the purposes of these hybrid hearings, in-person quorum requirements should remain in place (most committee rules require only two members be present to hear testimony), with allowances for committee and non-partisan support staff to guide the proceedings and troubleshoot any technical problems. For the reasons outlined above, virtual participation should not become the default — but should instead be reserved for members in at-risk categories or who are otherwise unable to travel to D.C.

The fourth strategy, “Accelerate Active Risk Mitigation Practices,” has already been put in motion, the lawmakers said. They cited the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for offices and committees but added that additional screening procedures should be considered, including “self-reported medical diagnostic assessments, at-home temperature monitoring, touchless thermal temperature checks at office entry points, or any combination thereof.”

Congress, they added, should also implement a uniform “return-to-work” policy” in accordance with CDC guidelines.

“This pandemic has claimed too many lives and livelihoods already,” the wrote. “We must not allow the institution we are tasked with safeguarding to be the next.”

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) sharply criticized the initial decision to delay the House’s return, telling Breitbart News editor-in-chief and Breitbart News Daily host Alex Marlow last week, “For whatever reason, Speaker Pelosi and her majority want to just sit back in San Francisco or wherever else they’re at and write bills in secret”:

Senators returned to the U.S. capital on Monday.

“All across our nation, American workers in essential sectors are following expert advice and taking new precautions while they continue reporting for duty and performing irreplaceable work their country needs,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Friday.

“Starting Monday, the Senate will do the same,” he vowed.

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