COVID-19: The week that was in Congress

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Last week’s reconvening of Congress (sort of) to pass the fourth emergency response bill to the coronavirus pandemic was a whirlwind of procedural string-pulling. The hope was to make legislating as safe and painless as possible for members.

After more than a week of Senate deadlock over the breadth of the aid bill, the upper-body passed a $484 billion measure to expand the small business paycheck protection program by $310 billion and to provide monies for hospitals and testing. The measure was adopted by unanimous consent with only a handful of senators present. As before, the Senate built on an unrelated, previously House-passed appropriations bill to meet the Constitution’s spending origination clause.

Upon receiving the Senate bill, the House was once again faced with the demand from a single Republican for a roll-call vote on the measure. That meant calling back members for a session on Thursday, April 23. The session will surely go down in the annals of CSPAN-TV as among the more bizarre, yet necessary, spectacles in that chamber. Members were socially distanced on the floor (and presumably in the galleries), most wearing protective masks.

The first item of business was a resolution creating a select subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee to oversee expenditures of the coronavirus response funds. The panel was first proposed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a stand-alone committee with Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) as its pre-designated chairman. Pelosi explained her vision as an entity comparable to the Senate Select Committee on World War II expenditures chaired by Sen. Harry Truman (D-Mo.) from 1941-44. Truman’s committee exposed millions of dollars in profiteering by defense contractors.

Pelosi’s plan for a new select committee met resistance from existing committees with oversight jurisdiction, and, faced with mutinous objections, the compromise of layering a new subcommittee on the House Oversight and Reform Committee was reached.

Meantime, the House Rules Committee had proposed a resolution to permit virtual proxy voting in the House. Members would be allowed to vote from their home districts on coronavirus-related bills, while authorizing committees would be permitted to conduct virtual hearings and report on any matter.

The Rules’ proposal had not been previously discussed with minority Republicans who strongly protested. Democrats pulled the resolution and agreed to a bipartisan taskforce of House party and committee leaders to negotiate a compromise on proxy voting from afar.

While the House easily passed the small business, hospital, and testing bill on April 23, future procedural arrangements remain uncertain. The debate made clear some Republicans would prefer to get back to work in Washington to carry out their committee and House chamber responsibilities. That is not realistic from a health perspective; yet, both houses and the administration want to produce a part-five bill to assist states with their funding and infrastructure burdens, and that too should attract bipartisan support.

In the meantime, proper groundwork must be laid to develop the legislation in a fiscally responsible and program-effective manner. That requires a means for the various committees of jurisdiction to hold hearings and deliberate. The Rules Committee resolution on proxy voting contained two sections authorizing committees to hold hearings and vote on any measure on a virtual basis during this hiatus. It should be embraced as a first step by the bipartisan task force to keep the House at work.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.

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