“Peak Congressional Disorganization:” Working to Save the Country, Congress Forgot to Keep its Own People Safe
Washington, DC, March 18, 2020 | Vanity Fair
With Donald Trump knee-deep in denial over the threat of the coronavirus, dismissing the highly contagious virus as nothing more than a media hoax that a little sunlight could fix until two days ago, the onus fell to other elected officials to fill the messaging vacuum and put together emergency legislation intended to stymie the impending health and economic crisis. But even as lawmakers sounded the alarm, Congress itself—an institution of human beings, where handshakes are a coin of the realm and a scrum is a sign of prestige—was left dangerously vulnerable.
As the number of domestic cases of COVID-19 and the death toll ticked upward, many legislative offices were left scrambling to scale up to work remotely amid a cresting pandemic. And as House Democratic leadership drafted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, lawmakers and staffers waited for guidance on how to respond, operationally, to the coronavirus as CDC recommendations were cast aside. “The virus wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have,” one Democratic staffer told me. “Nobody is ready. Nobody was ready for this situation to evolve the way that it is. They were caught flat-footed, no different than any other business,” this person said of many Hill offices.
Capitol Hill is inherently susceptible to contagion, by its nature a viral hotbed. “We are the worst-case scenario. We have 535 people, disproportionately older, who almost on a weekly basis fly to 435 districts and 50 states all around every nook and cranny of the country, shaking hands relentlessly, meeting with hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the course of a week,” said Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips, whose office shifted to teleworking at the start of last week. “And then we bring it all back to one room where we’re all together.” Add into the mix thousands of Hill staffers, roving crowds of Capitol visitors, and the reality that most congressional offices can be characterized as overcrowded shoeboxes, Phillips told me emphatically, and there is perhaps nothing more “antithetical to best practice than that.”
Hints of a pending pandemic in congressional buildings only began to crop up over the last week or two, according to congressional sources I spoke with. A few offices posted signs on their doors informing visitors of a moratorium on drop-ins and in-person meetings, or that they had entered a no-handshake zone. But given that Congress is effectively an amalgam of hundreds of little businesses, with each operating independently, the Hill’s response to coronavirus has been plagued by inconsistency. Another Democratic staffer described it as “peak congressional disorganization.”
“Everyone else in the world is quarantined to their homes, and Congress is literally walking around with signs that say, ‘We’re not shaking hands, so we’ll also be fine,’” this person said. “I think this is one of those times where we’ve gotten less information than we get on, like, a snow day.”
The Committee on House Administration, led by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, has been disseminating information on both coronavirus and House teleworking policies. Last week House leadership issued advisements on outfitting offices with more laptops and said members should prepare for teleworking to be the new normal for many. The seriousness of the virus has really gained traction this week, another staffer said, noting that door tags have shown up on offices to indicate whether they have been sanitized and cleaned. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi has stopped short of mandates or issuing blanket guidance—just recommendations. “I am writing to encourage you to take steps to promote social distancing within your Washington, D.C. office as we engage in the District Work Period,” Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Sunday, in reference to the House recess, which started this week. “This may entail more than half of your Washington staff teleworking from home.” And tours of the Capitol weren’t canceled until Friday, a decision Pelosi had resisted, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
“Congress is two things. It is both a symbol as well as a workplace,” a senior Democratic staffer explained. “I’m sure that from leadership’s perspective, their job was as a symbol, when there’s not a lot of faith in the administrative capabilities of the administration and this president that it became very important for there to be a demonstration of ‘adults are in charge.’” Behind closed doors, according to the source familiar with discussions about the Hill’s response, Speaker Pelosi has said she views Donald Trump as a threat to public safety, leaving it up to Congress to correct the record while avoiding overly heavy-handed criticism of the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis until the threat of the virus has been dramatically reduced.
But Hill sources I spoke with expressed frustration at what they viewed as inaction on the part of Democratic leadership in the face of the coronavirus crisis, even as the number of congresspeople self-quarantining and staffers who had tested positive for COVID-19 grew. A focus on the symbol has left the workplace to suffer. “It’s not my office that needs leadership to be more proactive,” the second Democratic staffer said. “There are definitely bosses on the Hill that do not care if their staff are coming in to staff their meeting, which puts their life at risk. There are plenty of people like that, and it’s those staffers that need leadership to step up and be accountable.”
Pelosi’s declaration of, “We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” when quashing talk of shutting down the Capitol, added insult to injury. “I get her position was [that] it would send a horrible message if people saw Congress just abandoning ship and going home,” a senior Democratic staffer told me. “But that doesn’t explain why your $30,000-a-year staff assistant still has to show up to work every day and be exposed to all these tourists. And really it was like, What the fuck are we doing here?”
In the absence of guidance from the top, congressional offices have treated coronavirus with varying degrees of urgency. Phillips, for instance, sought out Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a member of House Democratic leadership, to express his concerns last Wednesday. The office of Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, went to full teleworking when the members left last Thursday. With an ailing wife battling cancer at home, Nadler certainly has a vested interest in avoiding any contact with COVID-19. But Nadler’s communications director, Daniel Schwarz, told me his boss’s “hobby is to be nervous” and described his concerns as rooted in experience. “Our office has some experience with being a bit of a canary in the coal mine,” Schwarz said, recalling Nadler’s dissent when other elected officials urged New Yorkers to go back to work after 9/11. At the time, Nadler argued that no one knew if it was safe to go back to work and the site of the twin towers—and he proved to be prescient.
Lawmakers like Congressman Raul Ruiz, a doctor who boasts multiple graduate degrees from Harvard, including one in public health, have stepped into the role of educating colleagues. “The key to public preparedness is to imagine what, where we could be in two weeks or a month and institute the behavior that you would expect during that time now. That’s the general rule of disaster preparedness,” Ruiz told me. “That is why I’ve been very frustrated with the administration’s early lackadaisical dismissal of this, because [of] that time where the virus was spreading rapidly in China, moving to other places, and we knew the severity of the illness, especially in the elderly and how many people were dying.… Instead of reacting to the news of the day, we need to be implementing safety protocols for what we expect this is gonna look like two months from now.”
Given the aging population of Congress and that a number of members suffer from other underlying risk factors like diabetes or cancer, a bleak reality is looming. “I have been asked questions by members of Congress who fit that category, who are concerned about their own health [and are] seeking my medical advice, and they follow the recommendations,” Ruiz said. “And then I have other members who visibly are sick, and although I recommend they take certain measures, I see them later in the day without taking those measures.”
But even beyond the health and safety of lawmakers and staffers, the coronavirus has exposed just how far behind the technological curve Capitol Hill is. Staffers I spoke with described mad scrambles to get outfitted with secure devices and programs to telework. And with just one dedicated to every five House offices, I.T. workers on the Hill have been working nonstop, well into the night and into the weekend to help offices scale up. “People are working around the fricking clock to actually get us set up and taken care of,” the first Democratic staffer said. “They are true heroes.”
If nothing else, coronavirus has laid bare the many inefficiencies on Capitol Hill. “[Congress] is literally one of the most archaic entities I’ve ever been associated with in terms of its workplace, its technologies, its systems, its calendar. It is a 19th-century institution trying to operate in a 21st-century world. And again, I’m going to be one who says this unfortunate and tragic and disruptive crisis may be the impetus to bring us, if not into the 21st century, at least in the 20th century,” Phillips said. “This is another example of where Congress was behind the times, and only because of this earthquake that is coronavirus might we be forced to really overhaul, in a really meaningful way, how we do business, and it’s long time that we do so.”
While the House is on recess this week, once the Senate passes a coronavirus response bill, the can will be kicked back to the House. Without the option of remote voting, it is unclear what a vote might look like, especially as the threat of the virus continues to mushroom. “We need to redesign the social, the physical, and the organizational structure of Congress if we hope to be effective,” Phillips, who, along with Congresswoman Katie Porter, supports a remote voting option for situations like this one, said. “And frankly, in some strange way, I almost feel like this week the seeds of that redesigning are being watered in a way I’d never imagined.”