Isolated from constituents and colleagues, lawmakers seek bearings

Lawmakers struggle to stay grounded during the coronavirus pandemic

 (Photos by Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call; Cover design by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
(Photos by Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call; Cover design by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 8, 2020 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — During a typical August recess, Rep. Tom Cole travels his district, from Oklahoma City to its southern suburbs all the way to the Texas border. He holds town hall meetings. He tries to get a sense for where his constituents stand on the issues facing Congress in its fall session.

That didn’t happen this year because of the coronavirus. “I feel more out of touch with my own district than I ever have during my congressional career,” said Cole, who in his ninth term is now the top Republican on the Rules Committee.

It isn’t the only way Cole says he’s struggling to keep grounded. In the Capitol, during the pandemic, hearings are conducted over the internet. Scores of House members don’t come to the floor to vote, casting their ballots by proxy instead. In a district that went overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump in 2016 — Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 37 points there — and in which Cole hasn’t had a tough race since his first one, in 2002, it’s easy to forget how diverse American views are.

“The districts on both sides are very homogeneous these days, politically, so a lot of members don’t really get exposed to the other point of view until they’re in a committee meeting or there on the floor,” Cole said.

Add one more cost to the pandemic’s growing pile: It’s making an already polarized Congress even more so.

Lawmakers reconvene this month with weighty issues to negotiate, including another round of relief for struggling American workers and businesses, as well as the government’s budget for fiscal 2021. On top of that: An election looms, further driving representatives and senators to their respective partisan camps.

To its credit, this Congress responded quickly to the pandemic, passing half a dozen bills in the spring and summer, with some $3 trillion in virus relief aid. It also passed a significant public lands measure, permanently funding maintenance for long-neglected national parks.

But since, Democrats and Republicans were unable to come to agreement on an overhaul of policing protocols and they allowed critical unemployment relief to expire.

In both cases, compromise was possible. Most lawmakers wanted to help victims of police brutality, and to protect the unemployed from destitution. But they couldn’t get there.

That’s dismaying to Cole’s colleague on the Rules Committee, Chairman Jim McGovern. “I don’t really understand why,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “I find that hard to stomach. We are in a crisis the likes of which we have never seen.”

McGovern, as much as anyone, has tried to help Congress operate through the pandemic, developing the rules to allow for proxy voting and remote hearings. But he recognizes their deficiencies. “One of the things that I really value about the way Congress has operated over the years is that in-person contact with one another,” he said. “I mean that you can actually pull a member, even of the other party, off the floor and have a conversation about how to move something forward.”

Impact on productivity

With the end of the fiscal year coming Sept. 30, Congress has just three weeks — before lawmakers leave Washington to campaign for reelection — to return to the bipartisan spirit of the spring, or they can dig in their heels and focus on making their case to voters. They’ll have to do it without the level of in-person contact McGovern misses.

Standing in the way of a deal: The virus is now ideologically freighted. Republicans want a return to work, school and normalcy. Democrats say the virus must first be contained.

In addition to driving a wedge between the parties, the coronavirus has sent the House and Senate on separate paths.

It has wreaked havoc on the House’s productivity. There, representatives have voted 182 times in 2020, through August. In 2016, the last presidential election year, they’d voted 478 times over the same eight months.

The Senate, by contrast, is more active in 2020, voting 157 times so far this year, compared to 134 times during the same period in 2016.

There, the political dynamic — a GOP Senate eager to confirm a Republican president’s judicial nominees — has overcome, at least to an extent, the impediments posed by the virus. More than a quarter of the Senate votes have been on judges.

The House in 2020 is in much the same position it was in 2016, with a president of the opposite party in the White House and little chance to enact law in an election year. The cost to lawmaking of its virus slowdown, then, is likely small. It’s not passing as many messaging bills currying favor with constituencies and sending signals to voters.

Despite the bipartisan votes of the spring, the pandemic has done nothing to reduce the overall level of polarization in the Capitol, which has grown steadily since the 1990s. So far this year, 75 percent of House votes have split a majority of Democrats from a majority of Republicans, and the typical Democrat is voting with his side 97.4 percent of the time. The typical Republican is with his GOP colleagues 95.5 percent of the time. Both are at or near record levels.

In the Senate, the story is similar. On the 59 percent of votes that split the parties, the average Democrat is with his side 93.5 percent of the time; the average Republican 96.4 percent.

Muted voices

Working in favor of a virus relief deal is growing pressure from rank-and-file representatives and senators facing tough races. Last month, moderate Blue Dog Democrats urged Speaker Nancy Pelosi to return to the bargaining table. In the Senate, embattled Republicans such as Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona say they’d like to get another bill done.

But the pandemic dynamic is muting their voices. As Cole says, it has placed even more authority in the hands of party leaders at the expense of backbenchers and even committee chairmen. That power shift is long in process, but the coronavirus has moved it along further.

Since the pandemic, Cole said, Republicans have held fewer than a handful of caucus meetings. They used to happen weekly when the House was in session.

“The really important speeches take place in the Democratic conference and the Republican conference when individual members get up to make a point and leaders are listening,” Cole said. “They can move the whole conference.”

For their parts, Cole and McGovern have a famously collegial rapport on the Rules panel, even as they, by virtue of their positions on the committee that prepares bills for floor consideration, do the bidding of their respective leaders.

Amidst the partisan gloom, that, at least, is refreshing. Looking ahead, McGovern said he hopes the post-pandemic Congress is one where “this extreme partisanship comes to an end.”

“I feel strongly about a lot of issues,” he says. “I know my Republican colleagues feel that strongly about a lot of issues. But at the end of the day, we have to move this government forward.”