Redefining district work: House members opt to telework during coronavirus pandemic

Members are home in their districts but largely not interacting with constituents in person

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell says she’s still available to her constituents during the district work period despite the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m doing it by phone and technology,” she says.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell says she’s still available to her constituents during the district work period despite the coronavirus pandemic. “I’m doing it by phone and technology,” she says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 19, 2020 at 5:00am

House members this week have redefined what it means to be in a district work period, as most of them are back home but unable to directly face constituents amid concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus.

Like many Americans, House lawmakers and their staffs are hunkering down in their homes and telecommuting with an unclear timetable on when they can return to normal work operations. House leaders advised members this week that they need not return to Washington as scheduled on March 23, saying they likely won’t call lawmakers back to the Capitol until a third legislative package responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is ready for a vote.

[House may not return to session until third coronavirus response bill is ready]

In the meantime, it doesn't seem to matter that most lawmakers are home in their districts instead of working in Washington since few seem to be physically out in the community.

However, some House members still feel it’s important for them to be home in their districts rather than in Washington and are pushing for a way to vote remotely instead of returning to the Capitol during the pandemic.

“Members should not have to be forced to leave a community in crisis to come to Washington and vote on the House floor,” Texas Democrat Vicente Gonzalez said in a tweet calling on Congress to set up a verifiable and secure remote voting system.

Congressional leaders have so far resisted the push for remote voting and instead are changing the in-person voting process to spread out the time in which lawmakers can enter the chamber to vote, preventing large groups from congregating.

[Pandemic ignites interest in remote voting; McConnell, Pelosi say no]

While home in their districts, House members are largely opting to stay home and set an example for their constituents in following social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which as of Monday advised against public or private gatherings of groups larger than 10 people.

Normal district work period events, like in-person constituent meetings and town halls, have been moved to telephone or online platforms.

‘I’m available’

Many members opted for the remote approach even before the CDC guidelines were tightened to make it impossible to proceed with in-person group meetings.

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Rep. Debbie Dingell told reporters before the House adjourned last week that she had significantly altered her plans for the district work period, including canceling three in-person town halls and an event where she was going to read at schools with Michigan’s governor.

“But I’m available,” the Michigan Democrat said. “I’m available 24 hours a day. I’m going to do virtual coffee hours. I’m going to be there, but I’m doing it by phone and technology.”

For some members, technology has allowed them to reach more people during the pandemic than a traditional town hall meeting would.

Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette said on Twitter that she had nearly 10,000 people participate in a telephone town hall she hosted Monday night.

Pennsylvania Democrat Susan Wild also described “thousands” of participants on her Monday night telephone town hall.

Some lawmakers, like Democrats Josh Harder of California and Lauren Underwood of Illinois, opted to use Facebook Live for a more visual remote experience.

Phone calls versus in person

District work periods are also a time when lawmakers spend time visiting local government officials and businesses. But instead of going in person, most members were catching up with local leaders on the phone — like they would if they were still in Washington.

Several lawmakers have tweeted about talking to various leaders in their communities without specifying whether those conversations were remote, but most who’ve shared pictures of themselves are not having face-to-face conversations.

But a few lawmakers have shared images of them being out in the community — seemingly operating as they would during a normal district work period.

Michigan Republican Fred Upton tweeted a picture of himself Tuesday providing the mayor and other members of the Benton Harbor community with an in-person update on the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some lawmakers are clearly violating the CDC’s social distancing guidelines that recommend against gatherings of more than 10 people.

Georgia Democrat Sanford D. Bishop tweeted a photo of him meeting with at least a dozen people Wednesday.

There appear to be just over 10 people gathered in Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett’s photos of a Tuesday meeting with the Austin Public Health expert advisory panel.

But on Wednesday, Doggett tweeted about conducting a video call.

Another part of district work involves interfacing with local media outlets. Many lawmakers seem to be doing interviews on the phone, but others are still setting up physical events.

Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan schedule a Thursday news conference in Youngstown with five local leaders. His office did ask media outlets to send only one reporter and noted they would be keeping space between participants per social distancing guidelines.

Kentucky Republican Brett Guthrie shared pictures of him doing in-person media interviews Tuesday.

Telework optional

Most lawmakers have ordered their Washington and district staffs to telework. Speaker Nancy Pelosi advised members in a “Dear Colleague” letter Sunday to promote social distancing within their D.C. offices during the district work period.

“This may entail more than half of your Washington staff teleworking from home,” the California Democrat said.

While some members have also said they’ve asked district staff to telework, others are still having staff report to office locations.

California Democrat Norma J. Torres on Tuesday tweeted pictures showing at least four staff members working in her district office, noting that they ordered Chinese takeout for lunch through UberEats. She wrote that her staff was continuing to adhere to social distancing practices and one of the images showed a bottle of hand sanitizer and a container of disinfecting wipes.

Some telework is normal during district work periods. House Democratic leaders often host conference calls to provide updates to the caucus during recess. This week, they held a call Monday afternoon and have another planned for Thursday afternoon.

House Republican leaders held a call Tuesday, according to Louisiana GOP Rep. Mike Johnson.

Phone time and screen time for members will certainly increase in the coming weeks. But the upside of working at home is they are getting to more time with their families than their congressional schedules would usually allow.

Some members are even sharing their tips for not going stir-crazy while stuck at home.