CORONAVIRUS

Lawmaking In The Time Of Coronavirus

Some House members are frustrated they can't do more — or that they don't have a seat at the negotiating table.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi wears a mask to protect herself and others from COVID-19 at her weekly press conference.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi wears a mask to protect herself and others from COVID-19 at her weekly press conference.

WASHINGTON ― As the House Democratic leadership keeps members away from Capitol Hill over coronavirus concerns, there’s mounting frustration that it’s also keeping members away from the negotiating table.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Democrats on a conference call this week that members would return to Washington “when CARES 2 is ready,” referring to the latest bill Congress is preparing in response to coronavirus. The problem for some members is that drafting a bill and then bringing members back means leaving them out of the actual lawmaking process.

That problem is compounded by all the loose ends in the next piece of legislation. Democrats don’t have much of an idea as to what is actually going in the next bill, largely because it’ll be subject to negotiations between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

One member on the Democratic Caucus call complained to HuffPost on Thursday that the legislation “may or may not” include infrastructure funding, “may or may not” include money for the Postal Service or election security, and “may or may not” fix problems with the small business loan program that Congress established more than a month ago. 

“They’ll let us know when it’s done and then tell us how to vote,” the member said.

Another Democratic member who also wished to remain anonymous was even blunter about the leadership: “It’s always Nancy’s way,” the member said of the speaker. “Now she just doesn’t have to deal with anyone telling her they have a better way.”

This member said Pelosi was actually weakening her hand by keeping members in the dark and negotiating alone with the Senate and the administration. “Because she could go to McConnell and Mnuchin and say, ‘Look, my members just won’t go for it,’” this Democrat said.

And yet another Democratic member who asked for anonymity to talk about lawmaking during the age of Covid-19 said the experience had revealed “the basic power relationships that exist.”

“People’s physical distance reveals their marginality when legislation is coming through someone else’s committee,” this Democrat said.

Blaming The Coronavirus Itself

Members with whom HuffPost spoke on the record about the situation also expressed frustration, but they tried to direct their anger toward the coronavirus itself and the challenges it’s presented to Congress.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said the conference-call-lawmaking was not a good replacement for members actually having hearings and face-to-face input on bills. “You just can’t pretend that this is working well,” Huffman said. “I think it’s time to talk about the fact that the emperor has no clothes.”

Huffman added: “We are completely emasculated in terms of our ability to have hearings and move the needle in terms of the institution.”

Huffman also blamed members — including many Republicans — who are demanding that the House bring back members and reopen the gym are the same ones who are making it more difficult to open anything. He suggested it was a GOP strategy to shut down the majority power of House Democrats.

That theory may be beyond most members, but it speaks to the frustration lawmakers are having in doing their work.

You just can’t pretend that this is working well. I think it’s time to talk about the fact that the emperor has no clothes. —Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)

“This is a unique situation, right?” Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said. “If it was just that they were keeping us away, it would be one thing. But, you know, it’s the attending physician who right now is keeping us away.”

The House seems to be taking guidance from the House doctor on when it’s safe for members to fly back and walk the Capitol halls.

Meanwhile, McConnell is convening the Senate next week, contrary to Washington shelter-in-place orders and the Senate physician’s saying he doesn’t have enough kits to test all senators for coronavirus.

McConnell may be risking the health of some senators and essential workers in Congress, but he will get his chamber back ― in some capacity ― and allow lawmakers to work on things such as coronavirus response legislation and appropriations bills.

Speaking about Congress’ reduced capacity during the extended recess, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) — true to form — roughly invoked a Woodrow Wilson quote he learned in college: “A Congress in committee is a Congress at work.”

Cut Off From Critical Avenues Of Influence

“The pandemic has cut us off from some of the critical ways that we can have input, because the committees are not meeting in hearings or markups,” Raskin said.

Raskin went on to say that on a huge bill like CARES 2, rank-and-file members can only hope to have influence on one or two items, depending on whether they are on relevant committees or able to form groups or can make noise about an issue. “And all of those things have just become more difficult during this time,” he said.

Congress has been somewhat slow to adapt to the challenges of remote oversight and lawmaking while being away from the Capitol.

There have been consistent discussions about remote voting, but many lawmakers have resisted the idea, aware of how each party could abuse the process to duck questions during difficult votes (think about Republicans during their 2017 efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare).

And while the House has taken steps to move some official actions online ― members can now submit legislation, new cosponsors and remarks electronically ― committees have struggled to hold hearings, and there has been no replacement for the important role of kibitizing in Congress.

Some members acknowledge that Pelosi has actually made efforts to include them in the lawmaking process. 

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), whose district borders Pelosi’s, said he has had a considerable amount of contact with the speaker and her staff and that Pelosi was taking his perspective, and progressive priorities, into account.

Democratic leaders also hold regular conference calls with their members and have held sessions for all members in which they can express their concerns about reopening ― or not reopening ― Congress.

Khanna acknowledged the frustration that members were feeling. But he didn’t think it was fair to criticize leadership for not conveying what’s going to be in this next bill ― it’s still a matter of negotiating with McConnell and Mnuchin.

I mean, everyone wants to be at the table. But you can’t make a table that has 435 chairs very easily. —Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.)

 “The challenge is you have to be able to negotiate, and you can’t have 200-some members negotiating,” he said.

Pocan made a similar point to HuffPost on Friday, saying there was always going to be frustration from the members who aren’t at the negotiating table.

“I mean, everyone wants to be at the table. But you can’t make a table that has 435 chairs very easily,” he said.

“Ultimately one person ― Nancy ― goes to sit down with Steve Mnuchin to negotiate what’s going to be in a package,” Pocan added. “And that’s where the natural difficulty occurs.”

The Progressive Caucus co-chair agreed that Pelosi seemed to be incorporating progressive values in the next bill. He thought some funding for the Postal Service and vote-by-mail would be included in the legislation, as well as hazard pay for essential workers such as doctors and nurses.

And he felt confident there would be some state and local government funding ― at least in some form. (Pelosi said this week that Congress may have to provide that aid in stages: first to states, then to local governments and municipalities.) 

The Progressive Caucus tried to extract some concessions for this bill during the last coronavirus relief bill, threatening to hold back votes for “Phase 3.5” if state and local government funding weren’t included in the next bill. Ultimately, they got soft assurances from the speaker and voted for the bill, which overwhelmingly passed 388-5.

Only one Democrat, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), voted no, arguing that the bill didn’t go far enough to help people while supplying plenty of money for the rich and connected.

There’s a risk in voting against these bills. Most members actually want to provide relief to workers struggling with the economic fallout from the coronavirus, and voting no during a time of distinct challenge for people just because you want a better bill can be politically perilous.

But the willingness of members to go along with any bill may actually weaken Pelosi’s hand. 

The speaker can’t convincingly argue to McConnell or the administration that legislation is insufficient when it’s garnering massive majorities from both parties. Ultimately, the fact that the House would pass almost any response bill by a huge margin makes it more difficult for Pelosi to demand progressive priorities.

Still, progressives seem to be united on the idea that Pelosi ultimately wants many of the same things they want.

“This isn’t a time where the leadership doesn’t want the progressive values,” Khanna said. “I think this is a question of negotiation.”

Khanna emphasized that it was easy to “Monday morning quarterback” the deals that Pelosi had cut on previous bills, but it was much more difficult to actually get more from McConnell and the Trump administration.

“You’re not going to convince me that there’s a single person who’s a better negotiator than Nancy Pelosi,” Khanna said.

And when HuffPost raised the point that some members just may not feel like they’re being heard right now, Khanna had simple advice.

“They should text her,” he said. “She gives almost every member her cellphone number.”


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