Clyburn threatens to end in-person coronavirus committee hearings if Republicans won’t wear masks
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the chairman of the select committee overseeing the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, threatened on Friday to stop holding meetings in person if GOP lawmakers won’t comply with the Capitol physician’s guidance to wear masks.
The Capitol physician last week issued new guidance, requested by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), requiring masks for any House meetings “in a limited enclosed space, such as a committee hearing room, for greater than 15 minutes” — an escalation from previously encouraging everyone to wear them.
But lawmakers — particularly Republicans — are still not universally complying with the requirement. And during a select committee hearing on Friday with Comptroller General Gene Dodaro on a Government Accountability Office report’s recommendations for improving the coronavirus response, Clyburn issued an ultimatum for Republican members of the panel who weren’t wearing masks.
“You’ve asked, Mr. Ranking Member, that we have meetings in person. We’ve accommodated you. I would love for us to abide by the attending physician’s recommendations,” Clyburn said, addressing House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), the committee’s ranking Republican.
“If you wish to continue having these meetings in person, you’re going to have to adhere to the attending physician or I will not have the meetings in person,” Clyburn said.
Scalise, as well as fellow GOP Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Mark Green (Tenn.), were all seated on the committee dais sans masks.
Green, a former physician and health care administrator, argued that it wasn’t necessary to wear masks because members were sufficiently spaced apart.
“We are 6 feet apart. We don’t need a mask. When I came in today, I put my mask on because I walked past people,” Green said, holding up a surgical mask. “Now that I’m in a seat, I don’t need a mask.”
Scalise also maintained that members were adhering to sufficient physical distance, even if some doctors “want to give even extra precautions.”
“None of us would want to put anybody else in harm’s way,” Scalise said.
Members are allowed to remove their masks while speaking so that people with auditory issues watching proceedings on television can read their lips. But the exemption may limit the mask requirement’s effectiveness, given warnings from public health experts that speaking can spread viral particles.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending in April that people wear facial coverings while out in public to help limit the risk of the coronavirus spreading from people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Most lawmakers in both parties have been voluntarily wearing facial coverings around the Capitol, but a handful of primarily GOP lawmakers — taking cues from President Trump, who has declined to wear a mask in public — have resisted following the guidance.
Until Friday, the select committee had been holding briefings and hearings virtually via videoconference. That had drawn complaints from Republicans who have been calling for the House to meet in person instead of conducting proceedings remotely.
Later on, as he wrapped up the hearing, Clyburn read aloud the Capitol physician’s mask guidance and reiterated that “we are not going to have another meeting in a confined space for more than 15 minutes if we’re not going to abide by this.”
“I grew up believing that the first sign of a good education is good manners. I think it’s good manners to look out for your fellow — and I see all the staff wearing masks,” Clyburn said.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) accused Republicans of undermining calls for the House to conduct proceedings in person by then declining to adhere to the established health precautions.
“I don’t understand why my friends in the minority, who I know are sincerely motivated people, would lambast the majority for trying keep the continuity of government going with committee meetings online, with remote or through proxy voting, and say ‘everybody needs to be here, everybody needs to be here,’ and then show up and not wear masks and put terror and fear in your colleagues and perhaps your staff,” Raskin said.
He then singled out Jordan as a “public health menace.”
“I know people tease our friend Mr. Jordan about never wearing a jacket. You know, I don’t care about his not wearing a jacket. That’s a fashion statement. But when he doesn’t wear a mask and interacts with other people in a legislative assembly, it’s dangerous. That is a public health menace,” Raskin said.
Scalise interjected that Jordan left the committee room with a mask on — although Jordan was seen at other points in the hearing seated at the dais and speaking without one.
Democrats similarly singled out Jordan for not always wearing a mask during House Judiciary Committee proceedings last week on police reform legislation and a Wednesday hearing on alleged political interference at the Justice Department.
But several hours of last week’s Judiciary Committee markup of the police reform bill went by before Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced that he would no longer grant speaking time to any lawmaker not wearing a mask.
Jordan defended himself during Wednesday’s Judiciary hearing by noting that he put on a mask to speak to Nadler, who was seated next to him.
Lawmakers are expected to wear professional attire, including a jacket and tie for men, on the House floor. But there is currently no requirement that they wear masks on the floor during the pandemic.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said earlier this week that Democratic leaders discussed extending the mask requirement to proceedings in the chamber but noted “the proximity is so much closer in committee rooms than it is on the floor.”
Since April, House votes have been staggered so that lawmakers only briefly enter the chamber in groups to vote by alphabetical order. And in May, House Democrats adopted rules changes to allow proxy voting so that absent lawmakers can authorize colleagues physically present in the chamber to cast votes on their behalf.
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