House holds not-so-socially-distant swearing-in

Many members ignored guidance not to congregate and linger on the floor

House members are sworn in at the Capitol's House chamber on the first day of the 117th Congress.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House members are sworn in at the Capitol's House chamber on the first day of the 117th Congress. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 4, 2021 at 8:16am

The House’s opening day of the 117th Congress began with a fuss over members refusing to wear face masks and ended with abandoning plans for a socially distant swearing-in.

But those were just the bookends to a day full of violations of public health guidance as the House convened at noon Sunday to open the new Congress.

[Pelosi elected speaker, likely for the last time]

The proceedings had been carefully scripted to allow members to avoid mass congregating and lingering on the House floor, but both were common features throughout the seven-and-a-half-hour day.

House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving and Capitol Attending Physician Brian Monahan, whom leadership has relied on for health guidance during the pandemic, have advised for months that members limit their time on the floor to when they’re speaking or voting.

Their guidance for opening day was no different, but like the advice they provided during the past year, it was frequently ignored.

The main difference is that 430 House members were present in the Capitol on Sunday, the largest amount since COVID-19 started shutting down normal operations across the country in March.

Members had to be present in person to be sworn in. Three were absent — Florida Democrat Alcee L. Hastings, who is battling pancreatic cancer; and Republicans David Valadao of California and María Elvira Salazar of Florida, who both recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The House had also just lost the first of their own to the virus, after Louisiana Rep.-elect Luke J. Letlow died Tuesday from COVID-19 complications. His death created a second vacancy in the House, along with one in New York’s 22nd District, where the state has yet to certify results in the close rematch between Republican Claudia Tenney and Democrat Anthony Brindisi.

The Louisiana delegation led the chamber in a moment of silence for Letlow, and they and other GOP members wore Louisiana pins to honor him. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders noted the tragedy of his death during floor remarks.

Mask, quarantine kerfuffles

Members started violating health guidance from Irving and Monahan during the first vote of the day, the quorum call.

Eager to catch up with their colleagues after the holidays and to greet new members, dozens of lawmakers lingered on the floor and socialized in large groups, with many members standing less than a foot apart.

Within the first 20 minutes, sergeant-at-arms staff got into a confrontation with two new Republican members who weren’t wearing face masks. One was Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who caused a stir during freshman orientation over the same issue.

Greene did pull out her mask during the conversation with SAA staff but walked away from the encounter without it on. She approached a few members, including maskless Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, before leaving the chamber. As she walked out, Florida Republican Brian Mast shook her hand.

Bob Good, R-Va., arrives on the House floor in the Capitol before members of the 117th Congress are sworn in on Sunday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

While SAA staff didn’t take any clear action to forcibly remove the maskless members, their enforcement sparked additional confrontations.

A Republican floor staffer yelled at a Democratic aide as he called attention to inconsistencies in health guidance, pointing up to the House gallery where a corner section had been blocked off with tall plexiglass barriers. The area was designated for members technically under quarantine from COVID-19 exposure to vote.

The three members to use it — Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla. — had tested negative for COVID-19. Monahan said in a statement that federal health guidelines allow asymptomatic essential workers who take additional precautions after exposure to keep working “in order to ensure continuity of operations of essential functions.”

The two Republicans who oversee the attending physician’s office, House Administration Committee ranking member Rodney Davis of Illinois and Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, approached Monahan on the floor to question the decision.

Davis and Beutler told reporters afterward they had no heads-up about the installation of the plexiglass barrier and they didn’t believe members under quarantine should be allowed to vote.

“This is completely against everything that we’re told throughout this entire pandemic for House operations,” Davis said.

Tensions seemed to soothe later later in the day. Greene and Gohmert donned their masks — although Greene and many others did not always wear them properly — and there were no other obvious confrontations.

Many members did adhere to the health guidelines. Missouri Democrat Emanuel Cleaver II told CQ Roll Call after he cast his vote for Pelosi that he watched the remainder of the speaker election on TV in his office.

“I’ve been here 16 years, and this is the weirdest it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s very awkward to have a vote, particularly for speaker. ... After your alphabet group has been called, you’re back in the office and have no idea how things are going.”

North Carolina Republican Patrick T. McHenry, who was first elected with Cleaver in the class of 2004, agreed that Sunday’s opening day was far different than any other.

“It is not as full of energy as it normally is,” McHenry said. “It’s always great to see the families and kids and everybody here to just feel the aura of this special place and this special time. And that’s been a bit dampened.”

Atypical vote

The coronavirus-related operational adjustments were not the only departure from a typical opening day. House members also encountered an unexpected roll call vote before they were even sworn in.

Typically, only the quorum call and speaker election are conducted before members are sworn in. After the latter concluded with Nancy Pelosi’s reelection as speaker, Alaska Republican Don Young, current dean of the House, swore her in, and she him.

Other members were scheduled to be sworn in next, but Republican Chip Roy of Texas halted the flow of proceedings.

“I challenge the seating of members-elect from the states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” Roy, who was elected to his second term in November, said.

Chip Roy, R-Texas, challenges the seating of lawmakers from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin on the House floor on the first day of the 117th Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer offered a privileged resolution to override the objection and authorize the speaker to administer the oath of office to all members. Roy requested a recorded vote.

The resolution passed by a vote of 371-2, with the only “no” votes coming from Republicans Morgan Griffith of Virginia and Andy Harris of Maryland.

Roy voted for the resolution because his point in objecting was to call out the flawed logic of dozens of his GOP colleagues who have alleged systemic fraud and abuse in the swing states he referenced, which they alleged caused President Donald Trump to lose reelection.

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“Such allegations — if true — raise significant doubts about the elections of at least some of the members of the United States House of Representatives that, if not formally addressed, could cast a dark cloud of suspicion over the validity of this body for the duration of the 117th Congress,” Roy said in a statement. “After all, those representatives were elected through the very same systems — with the same ballot procedures, with the same signature validations, with the same broadly applied decisions of executive and judicial branch officials.”

That vote put House Republicans who have said they plan to object to the electoral vote counting for those states in Wednesday’s joint session in an awkward spot. Even Republicans leading the objection effort, like Alabama’s Mo Brooks, voted for the resolution.

Speeding up swearing-ins

By the time the House voted on the resolution authorizing members to be sworn in, the seven alphabetical groups of no more than 72 members, set up by Irving and Monahan to stagger votes, had dissolved. There were hundreds of members in the chamber.

That’s partly because after the speaker election, more than 130 members sat in the House chamber — most, but not all, with at least one seat between them — to listen to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Pelosi give their first floor speeches of the Congress. A few dozen more observed from the galleries.

When the vote was called shortly after the speeches, there was already a large crowd on the floor. The disorganization was such that members no longer saw a need to return to the staggered groupings to be sworn in, the last action of the day that merited their presence.

The original plan was for incoming freshmen — the only members allowed to have a guest observe the proceedings in the House gallery — to be sworn in together in the first group. That was tossed to the wayside in favor of expediency.

“By popular demand on both sides of the aisle, the request has been made,” Pelosi said as she announced that anyone who remained on the floor during the vote could stay and be sworn in with the new class.

What appeared to be roughly half the chamber ended up in the first group. But even the smaller groups that followed didn’t adhere to social distancing, with most members gathering in the well only inches apart as they took their oaths.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., swears in members of the 117th Congress on the House floor on Sunday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In the unplanned speed of the swearing-in, it appears some members missed it or at least forgot to pick up their oath cards to verify they were there. Hoyer sent a notice to members late Sunday saying they’d have an opportunity to be sworn in during first votes Monday and could also pick up their oath cards that day.

The House adjourned Sunday just before 7:30 p.m., at least an hour ahead of schedule. But even that action was not without its hiccups.

“I move that the House now adjourn until 10 a.m. tomorrow, Tuesday,” Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said, before quickly correcting herself: “Monday.”