To quarantine beard or not to quarantine beard: Congress decides

Lawmakers fall into scruff and shadows as extended recess takes its toll

 (Photo illustration Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
(Photo illustration Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 22, 2020 at 7:00am

Congress is growing a quarantine beard, like everyone else you know, except this one is emerging from a poorly lit basement straight on to cable news.

“I was originally going for the ‘Don Johnson’ look,” Rep. Denny Heck told Heard on the Hill. “But it morphed into the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ look.”

The Washington state Democrat showed off his new beard last week on MSNBC, and he isn’t alone. More than a dozen lawmakers we’ve spotted so far are giving facial hair a try, hopping on a trend that seems made for times like these. 

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“I wasn’t really sure how it was going to come out,” Rep. Gil Cisneros said over email. “I have never grown a beard before.”

His wife is “OK” with it, the California Democrat said, while his twin boys are getting their hugs with a side of “pokes” and “scratches.”

Sen. John Thune’s wife, Kimberley, has seen something similar before: The mustache he had on their wedding day has come roaring back.

“I thought, ‘You know what, I’ll let it go for a couple of days,” the South Dakota Republican recently told Heard on the Hill. “I know it’s not really consistent with my image.”

As lawmakers adapt to an extended period away from the Capitol, they’re experimenting across the board, adding Zoom calls and virtual town halls to what counts as a “normal” day. This is what Congress looks like during a pandemic: hunkering down with the rest of the country, eking out relief money, and inching closer to the vibe of a ZZ Top tribute band.

A lot of beards have bloomed during the pandemic. Top row, from left: Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Bottom row, from left: Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wy., Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

Sen. Rand Paul, a trained eye surgeon, is volunteering at a hospital near his home in Kentucky. He recently recovered from COVID-19 himself — and has the beard to show for it.

“They banished me to the basement. They did agree to feed me, but nobody would send a razor down, so I guess this is what I got from my quarantine,” the GOP senator recently told Fox News, trying out a look that might be best described as “tired English professor.”

For some, the growth has led to soul-searching. “There is definitely a lot more salt than pepper,” Cisneros said. “It makes me feel a little old.”

That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “I’ve always been told I look younger than my age,” Rep. Ben McAdams said. “So the beard, including a few gray hairs in it, makes me look older.”

The 45-year-old Utah Democrat also recently recovered from COVID-19. He says he began growing the beard while in the hospital because he had “no energy to shave.”

Other facial offenders like Rep. Eric Swalwell have been here before. The California Democrat, who maintained a clean shave on the presidential campaign trail, has sported a shadow at least once, according to shadowy evidence (read: Instagram photos) dating back to last year’s August recess.

Rep. Chip Roy cut back on shaving after surviving Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and lately he’s been growing out a goatee. “Post cancer, I only shave about [two times] a week,” the Texas Republican said. “The goatee was just a fun thing to do while being mostly at home.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan has also opted for a goatee, shaving “every other day” unless the South Carolina Republican has a TV hit.

Do they use beard oil? “Absolutely not,” Duncan said. McAdams, for one, uses a “balm.”

Other recent sightings: Rep. Dan Kildee’s beard jumped on Twitter to celebrate health care workers, while Rep. Jared Huffman’s made a local news appearance earlier this month. And Rep. Mike Thompson led a virtual town hall with a hybrid style that mixed the reality of a beard with the overall mood of a goatee.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., leaves the Capitol after a brief Senate pro forma session on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

More will likely make their debut whenever lawmakers return to Washington, which could be as soon as this week for some House members, who are preparing for a recorded vote on a coronavirus aid package that would replenish a popular small-business loan program and provide funding for struggling hospitals.

In the meantime, beards have been popping up at placeholder sessions in both chambers. Mike Enzi and Dan Sullivan were on pro forma duty this week in the Senate, and if there was anything halfway interesting for the C-SPAN cameras to capture, it was their growing facial hair.

None of this is meant as a slight to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was spawning beard think pieces since before it was cool, or to any lawmaker whose beard dates back to nonapocalyptic times, though traditionally there haven’t been very many of them. The face of Congress is changing, whether it’s hair to stay or not.