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 Scalise (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 Pelosi (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 Jordan (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-Powell (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 Trump, who has pointedly declined to wear a mask in public.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (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 Alexander (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 Cheney (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 McClintock (Calif.), Louie Gohmert (Texas) and Brian Mast (Fla.). 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (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 Raskin (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.” 

Tags Brian Mast Debbie Mucarsel-Powell Donald Trump face masks James Clyburn Jamie Raskin Jerrold Nadler Jim Jordan Jim McGovern Lamar Alexander Liz Cheney Louie Gohmert Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise Tom McClintock

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