Axios AM Deep Dive

Two adjacent full coffee mugs, one red and one blue.

June 27, 2020

Good afternoon and welcome to a new Axios Deep Dive.

  • Today we're digging into how the pandemic and racial reckoning are shaping the future of Congress, led by Axios congressional and White House reporter Alayna Treene.

Today's Smart Brevity™ count: 1,246, or 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Pandemic rewires future of Congress

Illustration of U.S. Capitol building with line circling the building

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The pandemic is pushing Congress toward remote hearings and votes, and is changing lobbying, fundraising and campaigning, Alayna Treene writes from the Capitol.

  • Why it matters: The coronavirus is forcing one of the most change-averse institutions in the U.S. to rethink how it's always done things.
  • This could change who influences creation of the nation's laws.

State of play: Many lawmakers are spending more time in their districts and home states — and less in the Senate gym with donors and lobbyists.

  • Some lawmakers got sick themselves or lost loved ones to the virus. That's sensitized them to the fear, pain, stigma and uncertainty that constituents with less of a safety net are experiencing.

Flashback: The Senate returned in early May, while the House has continued to conduct most of its work remotely.

  • For the first time in more than two centuries, House members were allowed to vote remotely, by designating a proxy to cast their ballot for them.
  • House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told Axios the House may extend that 45-day window, given the COVID-19 surge across the country.

What they're saying: Lawmakers tell Axios they expect the expansion of virtual interactions to last past the pandemic.

  • Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas): More reliance on video conferencing “is going to mean we get access to more witnesses" who can't afford to travel to D.C.
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): "We discovered something we should have already known — that you could do these conference calls and get to a lot of people."
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.): "Society has crammed 10 years of experience, in telework and telehealth and telecommuting and Zoom meetings, into three months."

The pandemic has also sparked a serious discussion about the effectiveness of remote voting.

  • Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.): "You might not want to make remote voting the norm, and I think that's the fear of some traditionalists. But certainly it ought to be available in situations like this. And I think of other situations that would be even more urgent, like if there was an attack on the country."
  • House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who led an effort to sue Speaker Pelosi and block voting by proxy: "This is not simply arcane parliamentary procedure. It is a brazen violation of the Constitution, a dereliction of our duty as elected officials."

Bonus chart: House votes plummet during pandemic

Data: House Clerk. Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios
Data: House Clerk. Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

2. Hill faces reckoning on race

Photo illustration of a protester holding a sign that says, "Black Lives Matter."

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: J.M. Giordano/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

There's a simultaneous shift taking place in Congress around race, driven by nationwide protests over structural racism and police violence, Alayna writes.

  • Why it matters: The Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate are turning more to Black lawmakers to shape legislation. This moment may inspire more Black Americans to seek elected office — and more voters of color and progressives to support candidates of color.

The pandemic's disparate impact on people of color, and the outrage over the police killing of George Floyd, have added pressure on Congress to adopt federal policing reforms and reduce barriers to voting — though both efforts may stall.

  • It's also brought new energy to discussions around housing, economic and education assistance; access to health care; reparations; removing Confederate statues; and D.C. statehood.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told Axios: "The virus has exposed underlying disparities that exist in every aspect of society that will take more than a year to undo."

3. The virus gets personal

Illustration of thermometer tied with line and stars

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Three U.S. senators and eight House lawmakers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or tested positive for antibodies, Alayna reports.

  • Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah), who was in the ICU for eight days, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who got the virus at the same time, call themselves "the COVID caucus."

New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) said she likely got the virus traveling to D.C. to pass the CARES Act. She became violently ill:

  • "I was scared. I couldn't walk. I couldn't even go to the bathroom. My joints were failing me, and I was scared to get up and walk."
  • "I have to tell you, being sick with unbearable pain and fever, and being in isolation and not knowing what's coming next — it was a sense of hopelessness."

The bottom line: Many lawmakers fit high-risk profiles because they're over 60, have underlying health conditions and are mixing in close quarters.

4. Mask wars deepen divide

Illustration of a donkey and elephant walking away from one another and breaking the tethered line

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Several lawmakers told Alayna they feel more estranged from the opposing party than ever.

The big picture: It can be harder to build bridges when you're in isolation. And the severity of the crisis has exposed greater rifts in ideology.

  • "I miss the person-to-person contact," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said. "I have an office down here with a balcony and all that. I've had more meetings where we’ve sat in that office around the balcony, both parties, and worked things out. And that is hard to do on the phone."

Mask wars have broken out.

  • During several House Judiciary Committee hearings, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) insisted members wear masks, only to be ignored by Republican colleagues.
  • Eventually, Nadler said he would no longer recognize those who do not wear one.

5. K Street haircuts

Photo illustration of the K Street street sign in DC.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Some of Washington's top lobbyists have had to cut their fees as clients struggle through the downturn, Axios' Hans Nichols reports.

  • "We happily took haircuts in the hopes that our clients would get through this," said Sam Geduldig, a partner at CGCN Group.

What to watch: While some clients are asking for a reduction in monthly retainer fees, new customers are flocking to K Street with the expectation Congress will pass another big-ticket relief package this summer.

  • Lobbyists are playing a mix of offense and defense. In addition to fighting for their share of the billions in bailouts, some industries are looking for retroactive liability shields.
  • Companies also want protections from future lawsuits, as the country starts to reopen in an uncertain world.

What we’re hearing: Among the hardest hit industries are oil and gas, airlines, tourism, hospitality, hospitals and health care.

  • The banking and financial services industry appears to be weathering the storm.
  • But many trade associations are funded by formula, with member companies pledging a percentage of revenue. In recessions, they cut.

Between the lines: Some contract lobbyists, in a show of solidarity, are volunteering to cut retainer fees.

  • The true size of the haircuts won’t be known until Q2 lobbying disclosures are filed in mid-July.
  • New clients will also show up on those forms.

The bottom line: Most hired guns expect the real slowdown to start in Q3 or Q4.

6. Campaigning during COVID

Illustration of a hand holding a megaphone with stars coming out.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Lawmakers running for reelection are restructuring campaigns around frequent virtual town halls — a stretch for many Baby Boomers and older Gen X-ers who depend on staffers or grandchildren for their tech skills, Alayna writes.

  • Why it matters: Virtual campaigning is replacing handshakes, hugs, baby-kissing and door-knocking, as voters quarantine and social distance. That can make it harder for challengers who lack built-in name recognition.

Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican in a tight race in Iowa: "We're doing Facebook Lives, tele-town halls, Instagrams — all of it."

  • "I told my team to look at any opportunity where we can get out there safely and engage. Unfortunately, we just don't know what that looks like yet."

Rep. Diaz-Balart of Florida: "Among Hispanics, you know, you kiss and hug everybody. In my community, the secret of doing well is the fact that they know you and you know them."

7. Pandemic reporting

A photo of social distancing stickers to designate where reporters can stand on Capitol Hill

Photo: Alayna Treene/Axios

I covered the frenzied impeachment of President Trump. Now, the eerie emptiness makes the Hill almost unrecognizable, Alayna writes from the desolate Capitol.

Big yellow stickers — "Thanks for practicing social distancing" — tell us where to stand in the Senate subway.

  • Lawmakers, usually surrounded by aides, walk alone.
  • During "gaggles," we stay a few feet away from members. We strain to make out their words, muffled by face coverings.
  • Cafeterias are closed. So reporters still going to the Capitol have turned to an old frenemy, the vending machine.

The bottom line: Covering Congress always came with tons of face time with lawmakers and aides. Now, we rely more on texts, phones and video chats.

📱 Have a great weekend. Please invite your friends to sign up here for Axios AM/PM and future Deep Dives.