Democrats start cracking down on masks for lawmakers

Democrats start cracking down on masks for lawmakers
© Greg Nash

House Democrats are weighing how to enforce the use of masks on Capitol Hill during the coronavirus pandemic as a number of GOP lawmakers continue to defy the public health guidance.

Multiple committee chairmen, empowered by guidance from the Capitol physician to require masks at committee meetings, are refusing to grant speaking time to any members not complying with the rule. 

And a number of Democrats believe that if ties and jackets are required on the House floor for the sake of decorum, then so should masks for the sake of public health. 


Yet in-person proceedings in committees and on the House floor have been repeatedly marked by Republicans refusing to wear masks — and Democrats expressing their discomfort that those lawmakers aren’t doing their part to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the chairman of the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, warned on Monday he would not grant speaking time to any member not wearing a mask during future in-person hearings.

“My Republican colleagues’ refusal to wear masks is perplexing because you have asked repeatedly to hold in-person hearings, and you assured me that this could be done safely. In response, I told you that I would work in good faith to hold in-person hearings if we could do so safely and consistent with the Attending Physician’s guidelines,” Clyburn wrote in a letter to House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseHouse passes bill to prevent shutdown and suspend debt limit Democrats to nix B for Israel's Iron Dome from bill to avert shutdown Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid MORE (La.), the panel’s top Republican.

“Unfortunately, the Republican Members’ refusal to wear masks undermined the safety of everyone in the hearing room.”

Clyburn’s letter came after a select committee hearing on Friday, the first that he convened in person since the panel was established in April. For weeks, the committee held its hearings and briefings over videoconference, drawing complaints from GOP members of the panel who urged meetings in person.

But Clyburn and other Democrats on the panel grew frustrated when GOP members were seated on the dais without masks. Clyburn threatened to stop holding any more select committee meetings in person if members wouldn’t wear masks, citing the updated guidance — requested by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats seek to cool simmering tensions Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid House Democrats unveil legislation to curtail presidential power MORE (D-Calif.) — from the Capitol physician that requires masks “in a limited enclosed space, such as a committee hearing room, for greater than 15 minutes.”


So far, Democrats are stopping short of forcibly removing lawmakers who aren’t wearing masks from proceedings.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) has adopted a similar policy as Clyburn of declining to recognize members to speak if they aren’t wearing masks. But Nadler didn’t announce his stance until several hours into a markup of police reform legislation a day after the mask requirement went into effect.

Since then, it has had mixed results. Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanAllies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee Watchdog group seeks ethics probe over McCarthy's Jan. 6 comments MORE (Ohio), the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, drew ire from Democrats at another hearing last week for not wearing a mask the whole time. Jordan defended himself by noting that he put on a mask whenever he spoke directly to Nadler, who was a seat away.

“Every time I speak with the chairman, I put a mask on, I maintain proper social distance,” Jordan said in response to Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-PowellDebbie Mucarsel-PowellDemocrats face bleak outlook in Florida Nation's fraught politics leads to fear, scars and exits 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection MORE (D-Fla.) calling him “incredibly disrespectful.”

Scalise maintained that GOP members were sufficiently spaced apart in accordance with health guidelines, even though they weren’t wearing masks. But Scalise told The Hill on Monday that GOP members would comply in response to Clyburn’s letter.

“If that's the requirement, we're going to comply with the requirement. It's not a big deal,” Scalise said while wearing a black mask outside the House chamber.

Scalise’s compliance on Monday came as several top Republicans are starting to become more vocal about encouraging people to wear masks while confirmed nationwide coronavirus cases approach 2.6 million and continue to rise sharply in a number of Southern and Western states in recent days. 

While most lawmakers in both parties have been wearing masks in public, those who’ve continued to defy the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April are nearly all Republicans. Many of those Republicans are taking their cues from President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE, who has pointedly declined to wear a mask in public.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Woodward: Milley was 'setting in motion sensible precautions' with calls to China MORE (R-Ky.) implored Americans to wear masks in a speech on the floor on Monday.

“We need new routines, new rhythms and new strategies for this new middle ground in between. It's the task of each family, each small business, each employer and all levels of government to apply common sense and make this happen. To name just one example, we must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and near other people,” McConnell said.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, similarly told CNN on Sunday that it would “help” eliminate any political stigma if Trump encouraged people to wear masks.

“If wearing masks is important and all the health experts tell us that it is in containing the disease in 2020, it would help if from time to time the president would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate that says if you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask, if you're against Trump, you do,” Alexander said.

And on Friday, House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in Trump, allies launch onslaught as midterms kick into gear The Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out MORE (Wyo.) tweeted a photo of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a mask, using the hashtag “#realmenwearmasks.”

Yet even on Monday, some Republicans mingled with each other on the House floor without masks or had them pulled down under their chins, including Jordan and Reps. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockVaccine mandate backlash sparks concerns of other health crises The right fire to fight fire — why limiting prescribed burning is short-sighted Hillicon Valley: House advances six bills targeting Big Tech after overnight slugfest | Google to delay cookie phase out until 2023 | Appeals court rules against Baltimore Police Department aerial surveillance program MORE (Calif.), Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertRepublicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Security forces under pressure to prevent repeat of Jan. 6 Washington ramps up security ahead of Sept. 18 rally MORE (Texas) and Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastReps. Greene, Roy fined for not wearing masks on House floor The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by AT&T - Texas's near abortion ban takes effect Absent Democrats give Republicans new opening on Afghanistan MORE (Fla.). 

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerMcConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling House passes bill to prevent shutdown and suspend debt limit Hoyer tells Israel removal of Iron Dome funding is 'technical postponement' MORE (D-Md.) has acknowledged that Democratic leaders have discussed requiring masks on the floor, but said they prioritized instituting the mandate in committees because “the proximity is so much closer in committee rooms than it is on the floor.”

Lawmakers are required to adhere to a dress code — which is based on a combination of rules and precedent — that includes a coat and tie for men as well as a ban on hats. Some Democrats suggested that it might be necessary to institute a rule change to wear masks on the floor if there is still not universal voluntary compliance.

“If you start talking on a cellphone on the House floor or if you're a gentleman and you show up without a suit, the sergeant-at-arms will have someone come over and ask you to leave,” said Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinGOP seeks to keep spotlight on Afghanistan as Dems advance Biden's .5T spending plan Raskin writing memoir about Jan. 6, son's suicide House Democrats demand details after Border Patrol agents accused of profiling Latinos in Michigan MORE (D-Md.). “Masks are just absolute common sense. It costs us nothing. So I just don't see why we're not obligated to wear masks on the floor.”

When asked about the possibility of requiring masks on the floor, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) argued it shouldn’t be necessary.

“I mean, I guess we could vote on it. But why do we even need it?” McGovern said. “People ought to behave like adults and listen to the medical science.”