When Will the House Show Up?

The lone half-branch of opposition government leaves Washington to the Republicans.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to the press at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, on April 23, 2020.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks to the press at the U.S. Capitol in on Thursday. Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

By late Monday afternoon, Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives had decided they would join the Senate in reconvening Congress, as scheduled, in a week. By Monday night, those same Democratic leaders had changed their minds.

Starting on May 4, the Republican administration will be in Washington, the Republican Senate will be in Washington, and the locus of Democratic power in Washington—the House of Representatives—will be at home.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, speaking to the press in a conference call Tuesday morning, said he had changed his mind after speaking with the Capitol attending physician Monday evening. He cited the still-rising number of coronavirus cases in D.C., along with the hot spots of neighboring Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Further, he said, the next major relief package that House Democrats are drafting—“CARES 2,” as they’re calling it—wouldn’t be ready for a vote anyway.

There’s more to it than a dispassionate late-night chat with the attending physician—who’s also the Senate’s attending physician, by the way, and whose medical advice apparently didn’t scare off Mitch McConnell from reconvening his own body. Internal Democratic politics were a factor. Numerous Democrats, as Politico reported Monday, were outraged by Democratic leaders’ original decision to return during the caucus’ Monday conference call. Some, like Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, described the idea as “dangerous,” while others questioned how they would take care of their families during extended stays in D.C.

Some members, Hoyer said, “are very, very concerned if there’s not a major piece of legislation” ready for a vote, then the House ought to wait until it is ready, “rather than stay [in Washington] for some period of time.” Democratic leaders are still hoping to reach a deal with Republicans that would allow for proxy or remote voting—and, crucially, remote committee meetings and briefings—in certain cases, after tabling their plan to vote on such a proposal last week. Instituting that, however, would require members to come back to vote on it.

McConnell has more pressing reasons to call back the Senate than Pelosi and Hoyer do the House. The Senate, unlike the House, is in the personnel business, and McConnell needs his conference back to return to the people’s work of confirming unqualified young people to the most powerful federal appellate court in the country. Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, sent McConnell a letter Tuesday “respectfully” urging him “to have the Senate focus on COVID-19 related matters and oversight of all COVID-related legislation enacted by Congress,” rather than unrelated nominations. Surely McConnell will take Democrats’ concerns to heart.

Hoyer repeatedly emphasized that members weren’t slacking while away from the Capitol, and that in some respects they were busier than they’d ever been with the work of managing coronavirus concerns in their districts. But staying away indefinitely, without remote voting and committee hearing options in place, puts Democrats at a disadvantage.

No matter how often House Democrats try to prove to the public that Democrats really are working hard from a distance, it’s a tough message to sell to nurses, doctors, workers at meat-processing plants, grocery store workers, or any other essential workers who’ve been asked to put their own health on the line. (Not to mention the unemployed.) Plenty of House Republicans, particularly the old and sickly ones, are privately pleased that they don’t have to return to Washington. Publicly, however, they won’t miss an opportunity to label their Democratic colleagues derelict cowards.

“At a time when the American people are looking to their government leaders for guidance and confidence, it sends a horrible signal that Democrat leadership can’t even manage an announcement on returning to business without completely reversing their decision in less than 24 hours,” a House Republican leadership aide told Politico. “How do they explain to the American people why the Republican White House and Republican Senate can be in Washington to carry out their work on behalf of their constituents, but House Democrats cannot?”

Democrats could withstand Republicans taking easy dunks if that were the only consequence. But Democrats will weaken their hand in negotiating the next legislation if the Senate is the focal point of coverage—as it naturally will be, by being in Washington. McConnell’s Senate took the lead while the House was in recess in drafting the CARES Act, with Speaker Pelosi only flying back to Washington late in the process to jump into negotiations. The product, despite some Democratic gains in the bargaining, reflected that.

And it can’t be overstated how critical the need for oversight is right now, as trillions of dollars of loose money slosh around the executive branch to cover for a pandemic that the executive branch missed in the first place. “Obviously, there are a lot of things going on with how this money is being spent that are clearly not in keeping with the spirit of what we intended,” Washington Democratic Rep. Denny Heck told the Washington Post in a story about House Democrats’ frustrations with their barely functioning body. “And it’s harder for us to exercise oversight when we’re all at home in our war rooms.”

There’s a way for the House to resolve this dilemma while abiding by their pledge to follow the advice of medical experts. They pass a rule change allowing for a remote voting option for those members who are either sick, immunocompromised, or caring for family member, while the House is otherwise in session. Committee hearings and markups, as well as votes, can be conducted in person while adhering to social distancing recommendations, with those who have an excuse Zooming in. There can be a hard expiration date on the emergency protocol so it doesn’t become a precedent. This is the sort of “hybrid” deal that House is hoping to reach with bipartisan buy-in. It should have been reached a month ago.