Face masks required in House committee hearings, congressional physician says

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is asking committee chairmen to enforce the requirement

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked chairmen to enforce mask requirements. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked chairmen to enforce mask requirements. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 17, 2020 at 11:33am, Updated at 3:37pm

House lawmakers are now required to wear masks during in-person committee meetings, but it’s up to the chairmen and chairwomen of those panels to decide on enforcement.

Following updated guidance from attending physician Brian Monahan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked committee leaders to invoke the chamber’s rule on decorum to prevent members who choose not to wear face coverings from taking part in hearings within the committee meeting rooms. It’s all part of the effort to adapt to the new reality of conducting legislative business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

House committee leaders are being requested to enforce rules of decorum in order to require the use of masks, a senior Democratic aide familiar with the speaker’s directive said.

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“For U.S. House of Representatives meetings in a limited enclosed space, such as a committee hearing room, for greater than 15 minutes, face coverings are REQUIRED,” Monahan’s memo said. “Face covers will be provided by the meeting sponsor to individuals arriving without face covers.”

“Waterless hand cleanser should be used by individuals on entry and exit. Seating arrangements in accordance with social distancing guidelines and contact surface cleaning procedures will be facilitated by committee staff,” the attending physician said in the updated guidance, distributed to House offices in a Tuesday night Dear Colleague letter.

The aide said the office of the sergeant-at-arms would be empowered to deny entry to members who do not wear masks. In addition, the rules would permit committee chairmen and chairwomen to not entertain efforts by members without masks to be recognized to speak during proceedings.

The physician’s memo said there could be “limited exceptions” to the face mask requirement during committee proceedings, including when members speak with reporters.

“For example, if addressing the media from a committee room during an event, brief removal to facilitate lip reading by hearing impaired viewers is acceptable,” the Dear Colleague letter said. “Additionally, individuals with an exemption to face covering use due to a specific health reason are not required to wear a covering. However, six-foot minimum separation must be accommodated in all cases of exemption.”

While COVID-19 cases have been falling in Washington, there have been increases elsewhere in the country. Members of Congress routinely travel to and from their home districts, so the precautions will be all the more important as more members choose to return.

“The Congress has unique risks in that individuals attending the Congress do not represent a gathering of regional citizens but an intra-National assembly of individuals traveling from areas of variable disease activity to assemble in Washington DC. As such, Congress may experience not only the local District of Columbia circumstance, but also that of areas with higher risk,” the physician wrote.

The new policy got its first test on Wednesday when the House Judiciary Committee marked up legislation to overhaul policing. Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, before his opening statement, read quotes from the guidance from the sergeant-at-arms.

“As chairman, I have the duty and responsibility to maintain order and decorum in our proceedings,” the New York Democrat said. “I therefore fully expect all members on both sides of the aisle to wear a mask at all times when you are not speaking.”

The House rules allow members to participate remotely if they do not want to wear a mask in the room, Nadler said.
But about two hours into the hearing, Nadler had a reminder for Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the panel, who sits a few feet to the left of Nadler.

“I would remind the gentleman and the other gentlemen, that for the safety of their colleagues and the decorum of the House, they should be wearing masks, Mr. Jordan,” Nadler said, putting an emphasis on masks.

Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, the next to speak, followed up on that sentiment.

“Life is precious, and in the midst of this pandemic, which has cost more than 115,00 lives, we can show we truly believe life is precious by wearing masks when we’re not speaking in this committee room,” Raskin said.

Jordan did don his mask at times. Other members, when it was their turn to speak, typically removed their masks before putting them back on.

Later on in the evening, Republicans began objecting to the face mask requirement, questioning Congress’ own physician’s recommendation on protecting others.

Nadler later announced that he had been greatly lenient, but “that anyone not wearing a mask would not be recognized to speak, period.”

Todd Ruger contributed to this report.