Nearly two weeks ago, scholar Norm Ornstein wrote this plea to Congress to come up with a contingency plan for functioning with coronavirus. On March 13, he wrote: "What happens if enough members of Congress catch the virus, or are quarantined, that there is no longer a quorum to meet and conduct business? How, in such a circumstance, would Congress pass laws to address containment, treatment, and appropriations, or even exercise oversight of an administration that cannot be trusted to act appropriately?"
Early this week, five members of the Senate were in self-isolation and one, Sen. Rand Paul, was confirmed to have coronavirus. In the House, numerous members, including most recently Rep. Katie Porter, are self-isolating either because of an illness that's not yet diagnosed or because of exposure to someone whose coronavirus has been confirmed. And there is still no plan in place for either the House or the Senate to work remotely, despite the increasingly fervent calls from members themselves for it to happen.
After 9/11, Ornstein worked with several members of Congress to create a contingency plan for disaster. It was never adopted because of a combination of stubbornness, denial, and staunchly misguided institutionalism. Now is the time for congressional leaders to set that all aside. Congress needs to, as Ornstein says, "pass a plan that allows for a virtual Congress, an idea originally proposed after 9/11 by Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island."
Not just that—it needs to "put into place the most sophisticated and secure remote-meeting software and hardware for its members. Every congressional committee and subcommittee needs to develop the same capacity, with the same authority. If members have to work from their district offices or even from home, they will need the ability not just to meet remotely, but to cast secure votes when necessary."
This is needed to keep one third of our federal government—the most critical one for responding to a crisis of this magnitude since the White House is in the hands of a completely dangerous nincompoop—able to function. We know at least a few of the 535 members are infected; we don't know how many more might be infected but are asymptomatic, or are not disclosing it at this time. It is imperative that Congress set the example to the rest of the country of working at home.
Right now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to determine how to pass the second coronavirus stimulus bill from the Senate while the House is in recess. It's unclear whether it can be passed with unanimous consent without an actual vote, because there's always going to be a Rep. Louie Gohmert to object. The House should not have to return to Washington for this one vote, then disperse again only to be called back in a week or so for the next inevitable round of stimulus legislation.
Congress is already hampered by procedure that gums up the legislative works. In the middle of the unprecedented crisis, it doesn't need to be hampered by the logistics of moving 535 people around the country and exposing them to a deadly plague at every step. Congress is too critical to the nation to NOT be working from home.