Keeping some sense of normalcy in Congress

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The pandemic has produced some weird times for nearly everyone, including Congress. It’s been convening in a non-convened way with members not always agreeing on the right course. The Committee on House Administration has been doing lots of things to try to get operations back to normal. For a progress report, Ranking Member Rodney Davis of Illinois joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Rep. Davis, it’s good to have you on.

Rodney Davis: Hey, thanks for having me on, Tom.

Tom Temin: Now, this issue of the Congress being scattered also comes at a time when another committee of which you’re a member, the Committee on House Modernization is trying to update Congress in the way it operates even before the pandemic. So it sounds like we’ve got a confluence of things going on here.

Rodney Davis: Yeah, it’s a very unique time in our nation’s history. And we were really working on the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress to update some of the things that we saw as members, most of us on that committee. I mean, we actually represent some of the most bipartisan members and some of the most partisan members on committee. We were all coming together to really do one thing – that’s to make the House work better, and it was successful. But unfortunately, a lot of those efforts are going to have to change and our desire and our goals, because COVID has changed the way that Congress has worked, just like it’s changed the way the rest of the federal government works.

Tom Temin: And now that you have Congress operating in pandemic, let’s talk about the House. There has been some dispute as to whether the House needs to convene as a group physically. But I guess with the Democrats in charge, they have decided that it’s okay to have proxy voting and so on. So as of this week, what does it look like? How many people roughly are there and where are people gathering?

Rodney Davis: Well, about 70 members of the Democratic caucus have decided to use the proxy process. I’ve been against the proxy process ever since it became an idea, this Congress. I don’t want a pandemic used to really change the structure of what the legislative process is about. As a matter of fact, I think we can safely returned to our jobs, just like we asked many essential federal workers to come to work every day. They’re being asked to mitigate the risk of getting COVID. We ought to be able to mitigate the risks, too, frankly, just like the Senate is. And ironically, our Select Committee on Modernization, one of the goals was to get members together, talking person to person more as one of our goals to make Congress work better. And I thought it was the antithesis of what this proxy process is all about, which only allows you to talk to your colleagues remotely. That’s not good for the legislative process. We have a lawsuit that we’re challenging the constitutionality of the proxy voting process, since it’s never been used on the House floor in our nation’s history. So it’ll be interesting to see what the courts decide.

Tom Temin: In the meantime, though, you’re working as the ranking member of the committee on House administration to get things somewhat back to normal I guess where even those that prefer proxy will feel safe coming in. What are some of the steps you’ve been taking?

Rodney Davis: Well, these aren’t necessarily the steps we’re taking. It’s the steps we’re offering. And unfortunately, the majority, as decided against some of these things. Number one, we ought to be able to follow the lead of Major League Baseball, some larger companies like Boeing, Ford, Tyson Foods – you know, they’re making sure that their essential workers have testing capabilities. We’ve had offers from private companies, we’ve had offers from the Air Force to come in, and not just test members of Congress, because frankly, it’s not just about members of Congress. But we ought to darn well care about the people who are asked to come to this campus every single day during a pandemic, they ought to have access to testing. We ought to have some different modalities in place to identify who’s safe and who’s not, and who should be at work and who shouldn’t. And at that point in time, you’re going to have to have testing to make that happen. So when you look at the House, you know, we’ve had just a small grouping of Architect of the Capital, and contractors in the U.S. Capitol Police that have contracted the virus. But overwhelmingly, it’s been a pretty safe place to work. But as we move ahead, the only way to really get the House open again, as we knew it on March 13, is to begin testing and utilizing some new technologies. But the majority Democrats have decided against that. And frankly, Tom, I don’t think they want us to come back in a sense of normalcy. The leadership likes the partisanship, rather than the bipartisanship that you get when we actually have a chance to talk and work with each other.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Illinois Republican Rodney Davis, he’s ranking member of the Committee on House Administration. And just getting back to the staff for a minute, I guess there’s about 30,000 staff members of Congress if you count House and Senate, in your particular staff. I mean, you’re calling me on this interview from your office in D.C. is your staff with you and what are you doing – if they are, what are you doing just within your own office to make sure everyone stays safe?

Rodney Davis: Yeah, right now, I’m still encouraging telecommuting, teleworking. I’m in my office alone, but at this time of day, usually they’re not coming in till about 9 o’clock anyway. So this is not abnormal to be here at this time alone. But in the end, we want to encourage offices that can telework remain teleworking. As a matter of fact, this is a bipartisan success, that the chairperson of the House admin committee and I, we work together on to make sure that instead of going to vendors to buy laptops and computer equipment, we were able to pre-purchase many of those and stock them in our office supply store just in case on March 13, or later in that month, we were going to be asked to shut the House down and go into telework mode. And the House was ready, offices were ready. And I got to give a lot of the hard working staff a lot of credit for making that happen. But now’s the time to begin coming back and there are going to be limitations. We’re getting recommendations of how many staff can be in any given space at any recommended time. But in the end, we have to be able to get visitors back to Washington. People coming to Washington to see their government at work and also talking to their legislative leaders face to face. And that’s going to take everybody working together to make sure that – probably in the long run, you’ll have some staff teleworking on a maybe every other day basis and others coming in on an as-needed basis. But the days of having constituents walk in, probably unannounced, without facing a plexiglass shield are probably gone for the near future.

Tom Temin: And with respect to members themselves in the House chamber, if you can envision 300-435 members, say in that chamber, can you envision that happening? And if so, that would be with masks, say, and some kind of a daily cleaning regime? How do you see that happening?

Rodney Davis: Well, we’ve already proven over the last three times we’ve been in Washington casting votes that we can do it in a very safe way. And this was something that I worked with the majority on early on, which was how about we block off certain voting groups by alphabetical order? And then at that point, you can come in in a safe way cast a vote. And in between those votes, those machines can be cleaned. And, you know, we’re also finding out through different guidance from the World Health Organization, that maybe surfaces aren’t necessarily the spreader that we thought they would be. So if that continues to be the guidance as we move forward, then I’m sure we can probably change back to more of what we see on the floor now with members wearing masks, walking in casting a vote. But it’s still – that process of coming through in alphabetical order in groups, you know, in six or seven different groupings. It stops people like me from being able to walk to one of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea” because my name starts with a D and their name may start with a W. We don’t get a chance to see each other like we did. That’s got to change. We got to get back to some sense of normalcy.

Tom Temin: Now the House chamber is the size that it is, and I think people that see it for the first time are surprised that it’s not all that big. Could you envision renting, say the ballroom of the Washington Hilton, which can seat 2,000 people at dinner if you really crammed them in. So if you only had 435 standing each at their own music desk, you could maybe meet in the way the Constitution imagined. It just wouldn’t be in the place originally built for it.

Rodney Davis: No, I think there’s a misperception on members of Congress actually being on the floor. We don’t have assigned seats. So there’s no seat for me in that House chamber, we all kind of walk in and, and when we’re there, we use that as a time to really connect with members on issues of importance. So there’s really no need to go rent a space because it’s just like the Senate. I mean, you don’t spend a lot of time as a group there unless you’re casting a vote. And now that we’ve done a rotating process on votes, we can safely distance ourselves. But this goes back to what I said earlier about testing modalities, technology, testing capabilities, testing availabilities, and different technology to track your body temperature and other signs of asymptomatic COVID infections. We’re going to continue to grow in our knowledge. But the goal, the goal should be to get back to normal not continue this. If we have an idea on how to test for it, how to socially distance ourselves to avoid it, how to mitigate that risk, and how to help the staff that are around this complex or Capitol Police officers or Architect of the Capital employees or folks that work in food service – they ought to have some modalities that we can also use for members of Congress to make this place work again.

Tom Temin: Illinois Republican Rodney Davis is ranking member of the Committee on House Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Rodney Davis: Hey, thanks a lot for having me on.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.