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Pandemics change, but Congress stays the same

The congressional response to coronavirus isn't much different than to past outbreaks

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., left, wears a mask as he and his aides arrive on Capitol Hill on May 4.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., left, wears a mask as he and his aides arrive on Capitol Hill on May 4. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — It’s 2020, but the way Congress is operating amid a deadly pandemic isn’t all that different from past plagues dating back a century.

Congress is conservative with its institution. Changing tradition, be it breaking up the Senate filibuster or voting electronically in the House, does not come easy or quickly.

It took more than two months this year for the House to pass a temporary rule change allowing proxy voting and virtual hearings; even that was fraught with stops, starts, partisan broadsides and a challenge in federal court — despite lawmakers getting sick and potentially spreading the coronavirus to and fro in their districts and Washington.

[Old law could leave 2020 presidential race in stalemate]

As COVID-19 bore down on the United States this March, Congress closed its doors to the public, restricting access to common space much like schools, businesses and other governments had.

But lawmakers had unfinished business in the form of a multitrillion-dollar relief package. Leaders in the House hoped to dispense with it without a recorded vote, but not everyone was on board. “I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber, and I request a recorded vote,” Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky said on the floor before his bid was rejected — with the help of creative parliamentary maneuvering — on March 27.

The House did clear the $2.3 trillion package, with hundreds of members spaced apart on the floor and in the galleries.

But that did not answer the question about what came next. Subsequent House votes have been few and far between, with leaders opting to avoid Washington until absolutely necessary. When they have gathered, it’s been defined by logistical gymnastics and political sniping.

Minus Zoom and colorful masks, it could have been 1918, during the influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million worldwide, including some 675,000 Americans.

Despite the grim numbers, the Senate largely kept to its schedule. “The 1918 flu, which was so widespread, did result in a week or two of pro forma sessions only, but for the most part business continued as usual,” Senate Historian Betty Koed told CQ Roll Call.

Not so in the House, which struggled to secure quorums and keep members safe. Speaker Champ Clark was among those bedridden with the flu. He recovered, as did many others, but three members — Jacob Meeker of Missouri, Edward Robbins of Pennsylvania, and William Borland of Missouri — died.

“For much of the first half of October the chamber stood in recess punctuated by brief pro forma sessions which few Members attended. Sickness, as well as the need to care for ailing family members, substantially thinned the ranks of the House,” the Office of the House Historian notes on its website.

Congress still wanted to respond to the country’s needs. On Oct. 11, 1918, Rep. Martin D. Foster, an Illinois Democrat, asked the chamber to pass a Senate resolution authorizing the Public Health Service to coordinate civilian physicians to serve in needed areas.

But virtually no one was there, and one of the few who was, Massachusetts Republican Joseph Walsh, objected that the lack of a quorum prevented a vote.

He suggested trying again on Oct. 14 to give members time to trek to Washington.

On that day only 178 members showed. They tried again the next day, and though still lacking a quorum, arrived at an agreement to pass the resolution after Foster, a doctor himself, and another physician, Rep. Ladislas Lazaro, D-La., made the case. The next day brought a grim reminder of how close to home it hit when Meeker became the first member to die of the flu.

It being an election year, members stuck close to home the rest of the year, and stayed away from Washington until the next Congress convened in March 1919, when the pandemic was on its way out.

Subsequent pandemics came and went, and Congress hardly changed course.

The 1957-58 flu killed 1.1. million worldwide, including 116,000 Americans, and hospitalized Vice President Richard Nixon. In 1968, a deadly flu killed 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 Americans, including Rep. Robert Everett, D-Tenn.

​​​​​​Neither the Senate nor House historical offices could find evidence the chambers altered their schedules; the Congressional Record doesn’t reveal that they made much of an impression.

It might be hard to glean a broader lesson from all this. But a couple things stick out: Congress is loath to adapt to hazardous conditions. Some in their ranks, including the most powerful, got sick. And some died.

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