Running Congress during a pandemic

Congress has returned from recess to pretty much the same conditions, pandemic-ally speaking, as when it left. We discuss with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.)

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Congress has returned from a two week recess to pretty much the same conditions, pandemic-ally speaking, as when it left. The Committee on House Administration has been working to keep things operating as normally as possible. Last week, Federal Drive with Tom Temin heard from the ranking Republican member, Illinois’s Rodney Davis. Today listeners heard from the committee’s Vice Chair, Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Congressman Raskin, good to have you on.

Jamie Raskin: I’m delighted to be with you.

Tom Temin: So tell us what is it like in the Congress right now? Because you’re not meeting in the ways that Congress traditionally meets? And what’s your sense of where it needs to go?

Jamie Raskin: We’re pretty much in the same situation as the rest of the country. We are struggling to adapt to this nightmare the best that we can. You know, what makes it difficult for us is of course, we have members from all over the country and you think about people coming from all over the country to a single place to meet and talk. Ninety-nine percent of those kinds of conferences have been, and conventions have been canceled, and yet we need to continue to meet obviously for the sake of the continuity of government and to respond to the pandemic itself. And I think that I’m very glad that we moved as we did to adopt a rule allowing for the committees to continue meeting – yeah, even when we’re not in session on Zoom and to have remote hearings. And then also we have said that members who can’t make it because they’re sick, a family member’s sick, someone’s immunocompromised, or their travel arrangements have been rendered impossible by conditions out there, can cast a proxy vote and that way all Americans continue to get to be represented. And so I think that that has worked out very well, given the terrible condition that we’re in.

Tom Temin: I guess the proxy vote has become something of a contentious issue. And one Republican said that his view prevents people from talking to the other party. And I know you know, Republicans hate Democrats, Democrats hate Republicans these days. Hope I’m overstating it. But in the normal course of a congressional week, members do talk to the opposite party. And so do you feel that that element is missing somewhat that might contribute to the committee?

Jamie Raskin: Well what’s making talking difficult of course is the pandemic and the six-foot rule and the masking rules, which are the only things that we’ve got. Because we don’t have a cure, and we don’t have a vaccine, and we don’t have a treatment. But look, the reality is that people who do not act like partisan robots and just go along with what their party tells them to do, and people who you know, are not fed a diet of propaganda on TV and then regurgitate that – we can continue to listen and talk to each other and interact. Before any of this happened. There were people who just cast a party line vote and never listened to the other side and just repeated talking points that were handed to them. And then even in the middle of this crisis, there are a lot of members, I like to think, we’re listening carefully to other people. So the mechanism of voting is completely apart from the question of whether we’re having dialogue or not. And so I think that that’s a distraction from the real issue. I mean, when computer voting was first introduced in the House, and people were putting their cards in and their vote was going up in the board, the people were saying the same thing. This will end dialogue, this will stop people from communicating with each other. And it’s just apples and oranges.

Tom Temin: Sure, and tell us how the House has been able to get so much progress on its funding bills for 2021? This is something that, you know, the federal bureaucracy itself worries about, so there shouldn’t be an interruption in the funding, you know, a lapse in appropriations. And somehow the House – I think you’re ready to vote on all the bills as a whole House?

Jamie Raskin: Well, you know, I can speak only as to the Democratic Caucus, but we meet pretty much every single day. The committees and subcommittees are meeting every single day, but the caucus is constantly moving forward in some sense. Because we have not been here, members aren’t preening for the TV cameras so much. There’s real work being done. But you know, we’re back in our districts and we’re just hearing from our constituents all day long about the way that the frontline workers are completely overwhelmed and staggering under the burden of this: The cops and the firefighters and the first responders and the teachers and the bus drivers and the grocery store clerks. So we passed now a month, more than a month ago, the HEROES Act on the House side, unfortunately it was a party line vote, but the Democrats advanced this – a $3 trillion package to rescue our burden states and local governments. And now as the pandemic rages out of control in states like Florida, Arizona, Alabama, Texas, throughout the south and the West, our Republican governors and mayors who before may have been a little bit gullible with President Trump and saying yeah, you know, “let’s say ‘les bons temps rouler,’ open everything up,” are now understanding how serious the pandemic is, and they are begging Congress to act. So we’re hoping that this week or next week the Republicans in the Senate will sit down and come up with a serious plan with us, which is what we’ve been begging them to do for many weeks now.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, as vice chairman of the Committee on House Administration. And a related issue to House administration is the work that the Select Committee to Modernize Congress has been doing. What’s your sense of how much of that will become law in particular, the way that bills are published, so that they actually make sense to people trying to read the text of bills, which as you know, is a bunch of usually legalese without context of what it is that the paragraphs are replacing, and so forth?

Jamie Raskin: Well, I think that necessity is now the mother of legislative invention and innovation. You know, we are going to have to come up with a whole new set of rules to update and modernize the operations of Congress in the wake of this crisis. And I know the Republicans are suing us in court. They don’t like the proxy rules. They’re alleging they’re unconstitutional, which is funny because the rule that it replaces, which is the one that was adopted by a Republican Congress after 9/11 allowed for as few as two members to constitute the Congress. And what we’re doing is quite the reverse. We’re saying that in order to have a quorum here, we need to have the real quorum, but we can use proxy voting if that’s necessary for certain members. And, you know, we’ve had some members who have been proxy voting over the last several weeks because of either personal or family illness or because they’ve been unable to get to Washington. And I’ve just been disappointed that our GOP colleagues, rather than cast proxy votes, the ones who have not been able to make it are just not voting, so their constituents aren’t being represented. I think in the last round, there were nine Republicans who missed multiple votes. It just makes no sense. But you know, they decided to bring it to court. And I think the court will find that this is a so-called political question, meaning it’s up to Congress itself. Article I says that each house of Congress may define the rules of its own proceedings. And so that’s what we’re doing. And this is actually a much tougher implementation of the quorum requirement than what it replaced.

Tom Temin: Yes, I was going to bring up the Constitution now that you did and I know that you are a student of the Constitution. And to my knowledge, and you can enlighten us, there’s nothing about the rules of the houses of the chambers of Congress in the Constitution, except that they should be able to establish their own rules. Is there anything about proxy voting or anything of that?

Jamie Raskin: No, not at all. And the court has always been very expansive in saying that’s up to the Congress to decide. I mean, the rules governing filibusters and cloture in the Senate, for example, which are obviously much more influential and consequential in terms of legislation have always survived any constitutional attack in court because the courts just say that’s up to Congress, Congress sets the rules of the road proceedings. Of course, Congress does have to meet the requirement of a quorum and does have to meet the yeas and the nays. But it’s always been deemed to be within the province of Congress itself to set the rules.

Tom Temin: And just a final question, you know, this is something again, that does concern the bureaucracy but also the whole nation, and I don’t ask this from a standpoint of good or bad or, you know, a partisan way. But should the HEROES Act pass close to as the House has envisioned it? Then by the end of this calendar year, Congress will have added something like $5 trillion to the national debt above and beyond the normal appropriations that exceed the revenues in a given year. Is that giving anybody pause?

Jamie Raskin: Well, obviously it is because we are having to spend under these emergency conditions a tremendous amount of money. But of course, every economist will tell you and former Fed Chair [Ben] Bernanke and former Fed Chair Janet Yellen told us on Friday that this is absolutely essential and necessary. This is why you have a government to stimulate the economy to meet need and to help people get out of a recession. The problem is when you’re just randomly giving money away, for example, the trillion-and-a-half dollar tax cut that went overwhelmingly to the top 1% of the people in 2017 – that was completely gratuitous and unnecessary and it dug a very deep hole for the budget, for the debt, for the deficit, and we got almost nothing back for it, other than to confer this luxurious benefit on a tiny part of the population. So that’s the kind of spending we’ve got to avoid that moments like this, which are moments of real national public health and economic crisis are when we do need to spend. Now unfortunately, we’re having to spend more than we should have had we actually had a national plan run by the president for contact tracing, for testing and for instituting public health protocols. Instead, what we got was this helter skelter chaos where the states were pitted against each other in a brutal competition for the respirators and for the PPEs and the federal government played no role at all other than the president advancing different kinds of quack miracle cures like injecting people with Clorox and drinking hydroxychloroquine. So if you look at what’s happened in Europe, the virus is on the run. They’re down to very small numbers there and they’re able to re-establish with very strict masking and social distancing rules, something like normal life, whereas it’s almost as if we are starting the crisis every single day over again, because we’ve got no nationwide plan. And today I noticed that the president has pronounced it is what it is, which is a pretty fair statement of what his policy is- it’s just one of complete resignation and surrender to the disease. So we’re having to spend more money in order to just help our people survive this. It’s like the whole economy is on a respirator at this point because we lack any kind of strategic national leadership or direction.

Tom Temin: Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin is vice chairman of the Committee on House Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jamie Raskin: Delighted to be with you, Tom, best to you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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