Congress struggles to govern, maintain physical distance during pandemic

The halls of the U.S. Capitol building will not have it's usual activity next week. 

Democratic House leaders announced Tuesday that the House will not return to session May 4, based on advice from the Congressional physician regarding coronavirus concerns. 

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate will reconvene Monday.

"It surprises me that the Senate is actually going back into session next week, considering that the District of Columbia is a hot spot for the virus," said Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier. 

Rep. Speier said social distancing, aimed at stopping the transmission of the highly contagious new coronavirus, was evident in last week's vote for the relief bill. She says it makes it difficult to conduct business.

"There's only so many committee hearing rooms large enough to be able to accommodate placing members at large distances away from each other," said Speier.

Some Republicans such as Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA) protested with a statement saying, "If President Trump and Senate Republicans can be in Washington working safely, there's no reason for House Democrats to prevent us from doing the same."

The coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about how Congress can continue to govern, with talk Monday that it could take one year before Congress can return to normal proceedings. 

"The key requirement is that there's a quorum which is half of the members when Congress does business," said Professor Eric Schickler, Co-Director of the U.C. Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

"Under the Constitution, the House has the power to set its own rules, so in terms of determining what counts as being present, I think there's a lot of discretion," said Schickler.

Professor Schickler said historically, Congress has conducted business through wars and past health crises such as the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, but he notes one big difference.

"This was an era where Congress was not in session as much as it is today," said Schickler. 

"It would have been out of session anyway for much of that time, so there wasn't the same sense of crisis where you needed legislation to pass."

Schickler said there were calls for Congress to make emergency plans for governing in a crisis after the 9/11 attacks 19 years ago, but Congress did not take action. 

"We have this national crisis where we need Congress to be able to pass legislation, deliberate, and conduct oversight of these programs and yet the rules as they currently stand make it hard for Congress to do that," said Schickler.

He said Congress likely will need to look at rule changes.

It still needs to pass the budget and likely will need more relief bills, as some economists estimate the Paycheck Protection Program funding that was approved last week could run out as early as next week. 

Congress also has the constitutional role of oversight. 

"If you look at World War II and the Civil War, Congress had committees that were charged with looking closely at how for a close look at how the executive branch was conducting the war," said Schickler who added that with large relief programs now, that role will be important moving forward, "both in ensuring there's not corruption but also ensuring there's competence in how these programs are administered."

A House oversight committee for coronavirus relief funds is being formed with seven Democrats and five Republicans.

A bipartisan task force is negotiating how to proceed with business, Congresswoman Speier said.  

"We're going to have to find a way to vote remotely or use a proxy system," said Speier who notes the technology for fully remote voting still needs to be worked out so it is not a security risk or vulnerable to hackers.