Across America, essential workers are risking their lives in the midst of a pandemic to keep our society functioning. They're cooking our meals, treating our sick, caring for our elderly, delivering our supplies, stocking our groceries, hauling our trash, maintaining our infrastructure. And they're mostly doing it for meager pay and scant benefits.
But there's one group of essential workers who are basically sitting the crisis out: Members of Congress.
The House of Representatives has been in recess since March 14, and the Senate since March 26. The Senate intends to return May 4 (Monday), and that was initially the schedule for the House as well. But then a bunch of House members reacted furiously to that plan, the May 4 return date was scuttled, and now it's not clear when the House will be back. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Politico it will be whenever the chamber is ready to take up the next big coronavirus relief bill.
Now, no one has officially labeled congressmembers "essential" workers. But can anyone doubt it?
American society is drowning in multiple overlapping crises set off by the coronavirus pandemic. We're staring down over 30 million in job losses; we can't get enough masks, gloves, ventilators and other key equipment; millions of Americans can't pay their rent; the pandemic threatens to upend the general election in November; and state and local governments are barreling towards a mass fiscal crisis. Then there are the specific challenges facing the "official" essential workers: They're fighting recalcitrant employers for sick leave and hazard pay and even basic safety precautions and protective gear at their worksites. They're now forced to fall back on wildcat strikes and work stoppages to protect themselves. And as states and localities go over the fiscal cliff, the essential workers who handle everything from health care to sanitation to education are being laid off en masse.
These are all problems Americans desperately need solved. But they must be solved by policymaking, which is obviously done by our elected legislators. And policymaking is exceedingly difficult to do, much less do well, if Congress isn't in session.
Technically, the Chambers can still pass bills by unanimous consent while they're in recess. But getting to an agreement with zero "no" votes in the era of intense partisan polarization is an incredibly high bar to clear. Instead, Congress has settled for briefly ducking back into Washington to pass legislation, and then absconding again. A bill passed last week added an extra $320 billion to the small business support program, plus some more money for hospitals and testing and other small business relief. All of which was completely inadequate for the challenges at hand. Worse was what it didn't include at all: anything for states and local governments, hazard pay or new safety regulations for essential workers, or a national vote-by-mail system.
Part of the problem here was simply the Democratic Party's failure of nerve. It was Republican opposition holding up the aid to states and essential workers, and the Democrats could've simply refused to pass anything unless it included those demands. That would be a coldblooded strategy. But with a Republican in the White House, history suggests that voter rage over government inaction would fall on the GOP's head, eventually forcing them to cave.
The other problem was the Congressional recess. Last week's bill passed by an almost unanimous vote in the House, and by a voice vote in the Senate. Basically, without Congress actually being in session, it's extremely difficult for legislators to do deals and move votes, and thus expand the possibilities of what can be included in a bill. Without the process of haggling to figure out which "no" votes can be afforded on both sides, Congress' ability to actually pass the policies that Americans need is incredibly limited. What's even more bizarre is that this sort of involves a Democratic failure of nerve as well: It's the Senate, which is dominated by the oligarch-friendly GOP, that seems more willing to return to continue the American people's business; it's the House, run by the supposedly more populist and pro-worker Democratic Party, that wants to continue hiding out.
One possible way to at least ease this impasse would be a system whereby congressmembers could cast official votes remotely. That wouldn't get them into face-to-face negotiations, but it would allow Congress to carry out official votes — without the unanimity requirement — more easily and more frequently while continuing to shelter in place. But such a system would break new ground, and leaders in both parties and both chambers are resistant. It's not clear how much of the resistance is due to legitimate logistical and security concerns, how much is due to older legislators' personal discomfort with technology, and how much is due to the desire of people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to maintain their personal power. (With individual legislators secluded and cut-off, leadership in both parties effectively gets to design bills as they see fit.)
Frankly, if the only way for Congress to legislate speedily and effectively is for lawmakers to physically be on Capitol Hill, then they need to physically be on Capitol Hill. Yes, the health risks are real, and the Capitol's attending physician recommended lawmakers not return. But again, consider the everyday essential worker: Would any responsible doctor recommend a grocery store cashier return to work in the midst of a pandemic, if it wasn't for society's need for them to do their job? How is our need for Congress to do its job any less great?
Consider as well how enormously privileged most congressmembers are compared to both essential workers and Americans in general. Senators and representatives are paid $174,000 a year. As of 2015, the median U.S. Congress member boasted $1.1 million in wealth — over 12 times that of the median American household. If anyone has the resources to weather the risks of working during this pandemic, it is members of Congress. The rest of our essential workers are already out there, laboring to keep America going under the coronavirus' looming shadow, for far less.
It's good that the House intends to return again once the next big coronavirus relief bill is ready to pass. But the need for vastly more help was apparent the first relief package went on the door over a month ago. Congress should be moving at light speed right now. It's time for our elected representatives to stock up on masks and hand sanitizer, figure out some social distancing policies for their offices, get back to D.C., and do the work we elected them to do.
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