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A case history in how Congress dealt with the Great Influenza

In October 1918, during the depths of the influenza pandemic, Rep. Martin D. Foster, an Illinois Democrat, wanted to pass a bill to bolster the depleted ranks of doctors who could be called on to treat local outbreaks. It seemed like a good idea — tens of thousands of doctors were then serving overseas in World War I and the fear was there weren’t enough health professionals to care for the sick.

There was just one problem. So many lawmakers had gone ill, there weren’t enough for a quorum in the House — only 178 showed up, according to the website of the House Historian and Clerk. The speaker ruled against considering the bill and adjourned the House.

The next morning, Oct. 15, only 50 members were present. “But, in a remarkable step, those present had agreed to a ‘modus vivendi,’” according to the post, “under a unanimous consent agreement that would only work if no one ask for a quorum call.” At first, two lawmakers objected, but eventually withdrew. During debate, Foster, himself a doctor, convinced lawmakers that local physicians would not be taken from towns that badly needed the help. The bill passed, and the speaker adjourned, citing the lack of a quorum.

The next day, the first member of the House died. At least two others later died from the flu. Foster, the sponsor of the bill, lost his reelection bid in a Republican wave. He died a year later “after several months illness,” according to his obituary.

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