Congress infected with COVID-19 while trying to counter outbreak

The Capitol is framed through a window in the Russell Senate Office Building as lawmakers negotiate on the emergency coronavirus response legislation, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington • They fly to and from home twice a week, mingle with hundreds of people and glad-hand for a living.

They’re also charged with making emergency decisions to help Americans confront the growing coronavirus outbreak — if they don’t get sick themselves.

Now that at least two members of Congress have been infected with COVID-19 — including Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah — and others are self-isolating as a preventive measure, there’s little question the spreading virus could heavily impact the legislative body whose work needs to go on.

“They cram 435 people into a space where you’re in very close proximity for hours on end and the voting machines are such that everybody touches the same buttons time after time,” says former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican.

“It’s good and it works if everybody is healthy,” Chaffetz added. “But in a situation like this — yikes, it’s a pretty dirty place to be.”

Capitol Hill, added a Senate aide, is “a petri dish.”

Congress has no mechanism to vote other than in-person, requiring hundreds of members to either stay in Washington or travel to the nation’s capital amid an outbreak that demands quick legislative action.

Congress has already passed two measures to help during the ongoing crisis, including legislation President Donald Trump signed into law that expands paid sick leave, extends food stamps and offers free testing for those who might be affected by the novel virus.

A third phase of legislation, one that would likely top $1 trillion to offer direct payments to Americans while also bailing out hard-hit industries like airlines, is now being debated and will need a vote in the House and the Senate.

It may happen without some members.

McAdams, a freshman Democrat, and Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart both confirmed Wednesday they had tested positive for COVID-19 and were isolating themselves. But both had contact with multiple colleagues while in Washington who are now being notified.

Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican and the House minority whip, said this week he was quarantining himself as did some members from Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and New York.

Trump — who has tested negative for the coronavirus, according to the White House — didn’t appear concerned about members now affected.

"It's one of those things. It's Congress,” he said at a White House briefing.

The impact of the coronavirus, though, has led some to suggest Congress needs to reform its rules to allow votes to be cast without being present in Washington.

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., said on Twitter that in-person voting should be reconsidered.

“For the safety of our communities, during this emergency, we must be able to legislate from our districts,” she said.

That's easier said than done.

The House and Senate can approve legislation by what's called unanimous consent but that assumes no member of Congress objects. One objection would require the chambers to have a quorum present. In the House, that's 216 members all in one place.

Congressional leaders are already taking steps to make their workplace, in this case, the sprawling Capitol complex, safer by barring public tours and limiting access to members, essential staff and journalists, but that means elected officials still have to jump on planes to return to Washington or stick around while some of their constituents are sick or dying.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that remote voting by senators is off the table.

“We'll not be doing that,” he said, adding that adjustments are being made.

“We will deal with the social distancing issue without fundamentally changing Senate rules,” he said.

Congress' health officials say they are taking action to limit possible contagion even as members are going public about their own situation.

The Office of Attending Physician said in a statement that it was taking actions to “identify any individuals who require additional monitoring for periods of quarantine” who may have come into contact with members who have tested positive.

"The office has additionally reviewed possible exposures among staff members and has assessed other areas involving the calendars of the affected individuals,” according to the office.

McAdams will remain home in Utah for at least the next two weeks as he combats the virus — his family has not shown any symptoms but is isolating as well — meaning he won’t be able to vote.

Chaffetz, who is now a Fox News contributor and doing so from his home in Alpine, says Congress can do all it can to curtail further infections but there's only so much it can do.

“If you're doing your job, you're interacting with other members, staff, constituents and a lot of other people,” he said. “ And you're also on airplanes, if not a train. … I know they've sent so many people home, staff and others, and they've closed the Capitol to tours. But you know that the damage may have already been done.”

Still, he opposes the idea of remote voting, arguing it would jettison the member-to-member conversations that need to happen.

“I still think it’s important that you have in-person voting,” he said. “I don’t want to see Congress move away to some online or telephone-based system. I don’t think that’s right. Even with the medical situation threat. I still think there’s a way to do it and maintain social distancing.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, showcased that on Thursday as GOP senators met as a caucus for lunch. Tables were spaced apart in one of the largest rooms at the Capitol complex, though several members sat at one.

Romney, meanwhile, said Thursday that on top of his suggestion of a direct payment to American adults — one that has support of the White House and fellow senators — and aid to small businesses and health care workers, that he’d like to see the government strengthen the unemployment insurance programs. He suggests extending the number of weeks someone can receive the services and expanding eligibility to include furloughed workers, self-employed individuals and independent contractors.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Thursday that credit scores for Americans should be frozen where they were at the beginning of March “and for the duration of this economic crisis” prompted by the burgeoning coronavirus outbreak.

“An impact on credit scores can have a negative long-term effect of 7 years,” Stewart said in a tweet.

The Utah congressman suggested the idea of freezing credit scores — ensuring that scores given consumers on their creditworthiness remain the same no matter their actions — would cost nothing, provide stability and “truly” make a difference for American households.