Congress’ summer break is like a vacation during which you’ve got to keep checking email

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In the vaccine debate madness engulfing the country, you might overlook that members of Congress are under no mandate to get vaccinated themselves, and they’re under no obligation to say whether they are. But they are watching closely what’s going on with the federal workforce. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got more details from WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Mitchell, is there in fact congressional interest in what’s going on, because the agencies and the administration seem to be proceeding on their own here?

Mitchell Miller: It’s true. And there is a lot of interest here because of course, the politicians within Congress have their own views of how things should proceed. Obviously, various agencies have decided to proceed on their own, as you know, and have reported Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services among the latest to expand their requirements for vaccinations. The VA last week along with HHS, saying basically, the VA, which was of course, the first agency to get out in the lead on this is requiring virtually everyone whether it’s a psychologist, pharmacist, social worker – you name it – to actually get vaccinated. Of course, they will have some time to get vaccinated. And they’re also going to receive four hours of paid administrative leave if they do get vaccinated. And then you have HHS, which has a lot of employees that are going to get vaccinated about 25,000. And that includes many of the employees around the Washington area, including here at NIH in Bethesda. So these agencies are moving ahead and members of Congress are keeping a close eye on them, because they want to see, first of all, how they’re doing it and how well it’s working. And then of course, there are differences politically within Congress about whether or not various agencies should be required to vaccinate people or whether people should have privacy in that area.

Tom Temin: And that argument does run emotionally and wildly. I mean, it’s almost like the era – you had draft card burners, then bra burners, and now you’ve got mask burners on one side. And then the people that think, let’s get with this folks and get the whole nation cured. So at this point, then, Congress is not making any more mandates for itself. It’s just watching to see what happens with the workforce.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly. And then within Congress itself, there is this unique situation for lawmakers in that they are not required to be vaccinated. Of course, we have 535 members of the House and Senate. They’ve frequently, the congressional leaders have been asked about this at various points during the pandemic: Why aren’t members of Congress required to be vaccinated? Or why aren’t they required to actually say whether they have been vaccinated if others are depending on the health and safety of others? So obviously, there’s a kind of a mirror effect of what’s happening here within the Capitol dome as it pertains to what else is happening across the country. But it’s a little bit different in that, obviously, these battles are very, very intense. Many members of Congress on the Republican side are fiercely opposed to any kind of federal mandates, whether it relates to masks or vaccinations. And it’s estimated even though the numbers aren’t exactly public, it’s basically estimated that about 85% of the members of Congress are vaccinated, virtually everyone on the Senate side is vaccinated. However, on the House side, it’s estimated roughly at least 60 Republican lawmakers are not vaccinated or have not said whether they’re vaccinated. This is going to be a continuing issue too, because Congress, when it returns, we’ll have all these issues bubbling up once again, whether or not people should be having to wear masks as they’re required to do in the house, or whether it’s recommended as it is in the Senate

Tom Temin: And any truth to the rumor that if the whole infrastructure talks collapse, that Nancy Pelosi will come out with a line of face masks to be sold in boutiques next to the say next to the Trump tie display?

Mitchell Miller: I think so, I think we’re gonna have to actually have football helmets with masks, if things all fall apart in the next few weeks related to that.

Tom Temin: All right, we’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, he’s Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And there’s some changes going on with respect to congressional staff level pay that’s kind of interesting.

Mitchell Miller: Yeah, that’s a very interesting development just happened late last week. House Speaker Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announcing that staff members at a certain level will actually be potentially making more money than the members of Congress themselves. This has been kind of a contentious issues over the years, some lawmakers say how can the staffer actually be paid more than me? I went through the election, I’ve done all these things. I’m the person who leads my office. But at the other end of the spectrum are those who have argued that kind of like with the federal workforce writ large, that if you don’t have some kind of institutional people that are here year in and year out, you’re going to lose them to brain drain. And as we both know, staffing salaries are at the lower level are really pretty low for the Washington area. And so a lot of people leave and they go to K Street or where they they go to a lobbying firm. And so what they want to do is have these higher levels basically $199,000 would be the top staff salary. That would be about $25,000 more than the top salary for a member of congress which is $174,000. The leaders in Congress get more, over $190,000. But this would be a big paradigm shift for members of Congress. And it does look like it’s going forward.

Tom Temin: All right, I guess if the brain drains away from the staff, then the whole place would look like an extension of the national zoo so you got to keep those people around.

Mitchell Miller: Yeah because we know that the lawmakers themselves don’t actually write the laws – it’s the staffers.

Tom Temin: Hopefully they have enough sentience to read them, though, when they do get written. And when they return, of course, there is the budget resolution question, again, outside of the trillions bills. But just the $1.345 trillion for the discretionary budget, the old fashioned part of the budget, will they get to a resolution on their when they return? What, another week or so?

Mitchell Miller: That’s right. So Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has put this on a fast track. He wants all of the Senate Committees basically, to turn the budget resolution into legislation over the next several weeks. He set a deadline on that for Sept. 15, which will of course be only about two weeks ahead of the fiscal year. So they are going to they think they’re going to be able to get that done. They actually say that during this break period, they’re going to be having committee meetings via zoom and have staffers, as we just talked about, working behind the scenes trying to get this to bill form. And then another complicating factor happened late last week in connection with the $3.5 trillion, so-called human infrastructure bill, which is tied to the $1.2 trillion, bipartisan infrastructure bill, a group of House moderates, basically said to House Speaker Pelosi, we’re not going to vote for the larger bill, unless there is an earlier vote on the bipartisan bill. So that potentially could complicate things, because House Speaker Pelosi and the Senate Majority Leader Schumer have both, as you know, tied these two basically inextricably together. And it’s this delicate dance here, where on the progressive side, it’s just the opposite. They want to wait on the bipartisan bill and get everything into that larger human infrastructure bill, get that ready as part of that budget resolution, and then vote on the bipartisan bill. So a lot of moving parts related to these two massive spending measures.

Tom Temin: And you spoke with local Sens. Mark Warner and Chris Van Hollen on this. Do they think this whole thing can stay tied together?

Mitchell Miller: You know, these guys are basically half – a glass-half-full type of lawmakers and they’re really right in the middle of it. As you know, Chris Van Hollen from Maryland is on the budget committee, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner is actually one of the few lawmakers who’s working both sides of the track on this, literally both on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has already passed the Senate as well as this much larger $3.5 trillion dollar measure. They both remain relatively optimistic. They said, “we’ve been up here a while, we’ve seen these ups and downs, there’s going to be a lot of churn, there’s going to be a lot of people who say this isn’t going to happen or it’s going to fall apart or what are you going to do next?” But they believe that somehow this is eventually going to get to the president’s desk. Mark Warner specifically said I can almost 100% guarantee you that the smaller $1.2 trillion bipartisan plan that he worked on intensely will definitely get to President Biden’s desk for his signature. But there’s certainly a lot that potentially could go wrong here. We’ll have to see what happens in the next several weeks.

Tom Temin: And they could ask the president to sign every page individually and that would take some time.

Mitchell Miller: We’d be here well into next year in the midterms, right?

Tom Temin: Yes, indeed. Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

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