House creates coronavirus oversight panel while Capitol implements new precautions

First recorded vote in nearly a month features new guidelines

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., wear face masks as they walk down the steps of the U.S. Capitol as the House begins to vote on the $483.4 billion economic relief package on April 23, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., wear face masks as they walk down the steps of the U.S. Capitol as the House begins to vote on the $483.4 billion economic relief package on April 23, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 23, 2020 at 6:00pm

Masked lawmakers descended on Washington on Thursday to deliberate and vote for the first time in nearly four weeks. When House members voted to create a new oversight body to monitor federal coronavirus expenditures, they did so in a Capitol transformed by public health measures in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The vast majority of members and staff wore masks in the chamber Thursday, at the urging of the attending physician.

“Use of a face covering, while voluntary, is recommended for Members and staff in any proceeding,” read a notice from the Office of the Attending Physician issued earlier in the week.

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Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle removed their masks to speak at the microphones, which sparked a controversy on the floor.

Oklahoma’s Tom Cole, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, praised Speaker Nancy Pelosi for pulling her cream-colored scarf down while she addressed the chamber early in the day’s debate, and Cole recommended that other members also remove their masks when speaking.

“I’m going to follow her example,” said Cole.

[Then and now: Washington becomes a ghost town amid coronavirus pandemic]

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., responded by entering the attending physician’s guidance on masks into the record and telling his colleagues that masks are most useful in preventing viral spread when the wearer is speaking.

“People can do whatever they want to do, but I would say while we’re trying to show how fearless we are, we should be mindful of the people surrounding us,” said McGovern. “Until I’m advised otherwise, I am going to keep my mask on.”

Throughout the day, dozens of Republicans opted to forgo masks, including Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Louie Gohmert of Texas and GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, even though there were free surgical masks available just outside the chamber doors.

Indiana Republican Rep. Greg Pence, brother of Vice President Mike Pence, removed his mask as he entered the chamber, crumpled it up in his hand and joined a conversation with Scalise and two other Republicans. He then put his mask back on and moved toward the front of the chamber to exit.

Select subcommittee approved

The House voted 212-182 to officially establish the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis within the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The panel will be led by Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., and include as many as 12 members appointed by Pelosi and as many as five appointed by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

The select subcommittee’s purpose is to investigate the use of taxpayer funds for relief and stimulus spending, allegations of price gouging and profiteering, federal programs to expand virus testing and develop vaccines, and disparate effects of the virus on communities in the U.S., among other issues. The panel has the authority to issue subpoenas.

“The committee will ensure historic investment of taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and efficiently and nobody is ripping us off,” said Pelosi. “Where there’s big money — we know this — people will come up with a scam of some kind.”

Pelosi wore a cream-colored scarf covering her nose and mouth, matching her suit, and cleaned the podium with disinfectant wipes before and after her remarks.

Signs were placed on chairs throughout the chamber, letting members know how far to sit from one another to adhere to social distancing recommendations. Dozens of containers of disinfecting wipes were placed all over the chamber, and members used them to wipe down the spots where they stood to speak, as well as folders, phones and other belongings.

Similar to the March 27 session, House doorkeepers propped open the doors to all the third-floor galleries overlooking the chamber, allowing lawmakers to practice social distancing by sitting in the balconies rather than crowding on the House floor during the day’s debate.

Despite the additional space, health and safety officials on Capitol Hill urged members to remain in their offices ahead of the votes instead of gathering in the chamber. On the second floor, just outside the chamber doors, House floor staff set up tables with face masks and disposable gloves that many members either donned on the spot or carried with them into the chamber.

Side conversations and chatter were audible in the chamber during debate. The ambient noise seemed to be a distracting side effect of members and staff trying to speak among themselves at a distance, avoiding leaned-in whispers that were ubiquitous in the pre-coronavirus era. Still new to wearing masks, some lawmakers overcompensated for the slight muffling effect and spoke at a loud volume.

The resolution standing up the new subcommittee also allocates $2 million for the panel, which would disband 30 days after submitting a final report to the full House.

Pelosi announced the creation of the panel on April 2, but the move required a vote of the House to bring the subcommittee into existence. Republicans opposed the new panel, saying that existing congressional oversight mechanisms, along with the five-member oversight commission created specifically to evaluate the coronavirus funds, are adequate.

“It's entirely plausible for one to conclude this new select committee will simply turn into yet another partisan witch hunt aimed at damaging the president,” Cole said.

Cole said he would be in favor of establishing in the future a commission modeled after the 9/11 panel to review the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response, but he said the select subcommittee on the table Thursday is not needed.

“This isn’t about assigning blame. It’s about taking responsibility and being able to answer for what we have put forth,” Pelosi said.

The House sergeant-at-arms and the attending physician issued guidance Wednesday laying out a set of new procedures for social distancing and safety during Thursday’s votes.

To avoid gathering hundreds of lawmakers in one room — along with staff, clerks and others to vote, as is typical — lawmakers were supposed to vote in waves made up of alphabetical groups of approximately 60 members.

For the most part, lawmakers were successful in keeping the recommended social distance and not gathering in the chamber. Enforcement of which lawmakers entered when was lax, with overeager members in later groups voting early. But the chamber remained extraordinarily empty, thanks in part to sergeant-at-arms staff pointedly asking members to leave the chamber through the Speaker’s Lobby once they had voted.

Rapid-fire clean

After the first vote, staff were required to exit the chamber to make way for a whirlwind cleaning session. A fleet of Architect of the Capitol workers descended on the chamber with paper towels, rags and Lysol and bottles of cleaning solution and proceeded to wipe down the chamber. Armrests, seats, microphones, tables and railings were all mopped with pungent disinfectant.

“It smells like a bathroom,” someone said.

“Members will know that it’s been cleaned,” responded a sergeant-at-arms staffer, as the cleaning smell began to waft up to the balcony where reporters looked on.

The scrubbing of the chamber was on a tight timeline, with calls of “four minutes left” then “two minutes left” ringing out as the cleaners wiped faster.

When the bells rang calling the next vote, lawmakers began to trickle into the fresh chamber.