Mar 11, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Congress "last to leave" as other institutions send people home

An Architect of the Capitol custodial staff member walks past U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar's (R-AZ) closed office

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

While major institutions across the U.S. are sending people home and reassessing interactions amid coronavirus fears, Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have told lawmakers they have no immediate plans to close Congress.

Why it matters: It's a potential petri dish for the virus. Many lawmakers fit high-risk profiles because they're over 60, have underlying health conditions and are mixing in close quarters with visitors, staff and reporters.

  • President Trump isn't exactly leading the charge to pause, either. As Democratic rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders canceled rallies Tuesday in Ohio, Trump's team announced a March 19 campaign event with Catholics in Wisconsin.

The state of play: Several members of Congress remain under self-quarantine after they came in contact with a CPAC attendee who tested positive for the virus. But other lawmakers, staff and reporters moved freely about the halls on Tuesday, in close contact as usual, with no buffers between people.

What we're hearing: Aides told us they’re perplexed by the slowness of the institution to react and adapt to the dangers of the virus.

  • "Alarm bells seem to be going off everywhere except Capitol Hill," one Senate Republican chief of staff told Axios. "What needs to be done isn't rocket science."
  • "The Hill may be the worst place in D.C. right now. At least in the airport half the people aren't shaking hands and talking to each other," one senior House Republican aide told Axios. "Give it a week and everyone will be walking around in hazmat suits."
  • "If all the health warnings are warranted, then a lot of members of Congress may come down with this thing because those guys cannot just stop pressing the flesh," observed veteran lobbyist Bruce Mehlman.

The other side: Congressional leaders want to keep working to shape legislative packages to address the virus' impacts.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members of the Democratic caucus Tuesday that "we are the captains of the ship" and "we are the last to leave," while seeming to throw cold water on proposals to have members vote remotely or extend next week's congressional recess.
  • "The first thing we would do is close down tours. That seems like low-hanging fruit," a senior Democratic aide told Axios. "You can’t give the optics that you’re not working, but if you want to show that you're considering the safety of the people, tours would be the first to go."

The big picture: The virus has prompted major businesses and institutions to quickly regroup.

  • Google asked all North American employees to work from home.
  • The Gridiron Club canceled its annual press dinner for only the third time in its 135-year-old history.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission became the first federal agency to direct staff at its D.C. office to work remotely after an employee with respiratory problems was told they may have the virus.
  • CNN said that at the request of the campaigns and "out of an abundance of caution," it will hold its March 15 Democratic primary debate in Phoenix with no live audience, press filing center or spin room.
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