Pelosi mulls making masks mandatory at committee hearings

Pelosi mulls making masks mandatory at committee hearings
© Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiAs coronavirus surges, Trump tries to dismantle healthcare for millions Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Pelosi plans legislation to limit pardons, commutations after Roger Stone move MORE (D-Calif.) said Monday that she is looking into making facial coverings a requirement for lawmakers at House committee hearings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pelosi told Democrats during a caucus call that, in accordance with public health guidelines, she is considering making masks mandatory for attendees instead of only encouraged.

A senior Democratic aide said that any such requirement likely would not apply when a lawmaker is speaking, as it could make it difficult for people who have hearing issues to read lips while watching proceedings on television.

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It's unclear how a mask requirement could be enforced under House rules. 

Rules governing committee hearings do state that "the chair may punish breaches of order and decorum" by censure and exclusion from hearings. 

There are also rules limiting what lawmakers can and can't wear on the House floor. Hats and nonreligious headdresses are not allowed, and male members are asked to wear suit jackets. 

The Capitol physician has issued guidance encouraging lawmakers and other attendees at committee hearings and on the House floor to wear facial coverings as a way to reduce potential spread of the coronavirus.

Most lawmakers in both parties have complied with wearing facial coverings. But the handful who consistently haven’t been wearing masks in public are conservative Republicans.

Most lawmakers across the board, however, have been temporarily removing their facial coverings while delivering on-camera remarks at committee hearings and on the House floor — including Pelosi.

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Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Philip Kiko and Capitol physician Brian Monahan issued updated guidance on Monday for configuring House offices in ways that accommodate physical distancing measures during the pandemic.

The guidance obtained by The Hill advises offices to continue to telework "to the maximum degree possible." But if lawmakers deem it necessary for staff to be physically present in the office, the guidance said that occupying every other desk would maintain six feet of separation between employees for most office layouts.

The guidance said that the CAO has bought a supply of plexiglass barriers that will be offered to lawmaker offices in Washington, but it noted that "demand is likely to exceed supply for at least the next few weeks and possibly longer."

"Priority will be given to committees with legislative activity, offices without modular furniture, and other offices with an immediate, pressing need," the memo said.

House officials have also enacted safety measures since April for floor votes to limit the number of lawmakers in staff in the chamber at a time. Lawmakers must now vote in time slots by alphabetical order, a process that typically takes about an hour and 20 minutes for each roll-call vote.

The GOP-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has been in session for most of the last several weeks with some changes to promote social distancing. Masks are also encouraged, and Senate Republicans have been meeting in a larger room to hold their regular policy luncheons instead of a smaller room across from the Senate floor that they have traditionally used in recent years.

The House last held floor votes on May 28 to pass legislation granting small businesses more flexibility while using loans from the Paycheck Protection Program. Those votes were among the first used with the new proxy voting system enacted by House Democrats last month to allow lawmakers unable to travel to vote remotely.

The House is scheduled to come back into session next Thursday to vote on police reform legislation in response to the nationwide protests over police brutality and racial profiling. The House Judiciary Committee will first vote to advance the legislation in a markup scheduled for Wednesday.

House committees have still been holding hearings in recent weeks while the full chamber has been out of session, with a combination of virtual and in-person proceedings. The Judiciary panel held a hearing last week with testimony from the brother of George Floyd, an African American man who died after a now-former Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.