When the Capitol closed to the public a year ago and congressional staffers were scrambling to acquire and set up laptops in anticipation of mandatory remote work, every announcement and “Dear Colleague” letter explaining the shutdown anticipated it lasting just a few weeks.
Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Congress to adapt and, in some cases, accelerated shifts in operations that had long been goals of staff and lawmakers but were stuck in the inertia of the institution’s arcane and analog systems.
In April 2020, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House was moving to use an electronic system to submit documents related to floor action. The long-standing system of aides physically delivering bills, resolutions, co-sponsor changes and extensions of remarks to the Speaker’s Lobby or cloakrooms was replaced by a secure email system.
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, cited the e-hopper, as the system is called, first among a handful of coronavirus-related changes that should stick around.
“There should be some good changes,” he said.
But just because a change is popular and nudges Congress to modernity doesn’t mean it is here to stay.
“While many of the adjustments made during COVID have been successful and received positive feedback from Members, given the situation is still ongoing, no decisions have been made at this time about what will carry over following the pandemic,” Mia Ehrenberg, Pelosi’s deputy press secretary, told CQ Roll Call in a statement.
Aides to lawmakers used to queue up with multiple copies of amendments to submit to the House Rules Committee. For spending bills or the National Defense Authorization Act, a line would stretch from the committee’s room on the Capitol’s third floor to the first floor and take hours to move through.
That paper and time-heavy system was thrown out. House Rules first moved to an email submission and revision system. Now, it has eliminated paper copies of amendments and a system that required formal letters to change amendment co-sponsors, making it digital and instantaneous.
Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer, who chairs the Modernization of Congress Committee, has focused on improving congressional operations since his panel’s 2019 launch. The crisis accelerated some of its recommendations.
“Allowing digital signatures on other documents, just as a way to make things more efficient, was something that we were encouraging, even before the pandemic hit, and our hope is that that’s a change that can be made permanent,” Kilmer told CQ Roll Call.
He acknowledged that Congress wasn’t ready when the pandemic hit. In March and April 2020, there was a scramble to equip employees with tools to work remotely. Many relied on bulky desktop computers and didn’t have a House- or Senate-issued laptop to conduct business from home, or the knowledge to operate new systems and tools for secure communication.
“A lot of offices were caught pretty flat-footed, in terms of everything from how to forward the phone, to how to manage email, having enough workable laptops,” Kilmer said.
But ensuring offices have the security and tools to work remotely is a key part of any continuity-of-government plan. In early 2020, some office continuity plans hadn’t been updated since the 2001 anthrax attacks on Congress.
“All of these things were shortcomings coming into the pandemic, and I think now they are going to be an important part of how the House does business going forward,” said Kilmer.
Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, who chairs the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, expects investment in technology like laptops for staff and videoconferencing licenses to continue.
Even lawmakers and staffers with the most Luddite tendencies have adapted. That could open the door for a culture shift on Capitol Hill regarding remote work.
“I do think that telework, flexibility, especially when we’re not here, that’s going to be a huge, huge change,” Ryan said.
The Modernization panel proposed recommendations to boost congressional capacity, including to stem a brain drain that occurs when experienced staffers leave for jobs with better compensation and work-life balance.
Kilmer’s office was already looking at implementing a policy for telework, allowing staffers to skip the commute a few days per month and work from home before the coronavirus emerged.
“Part of the reason my office was setting this expectation, pre-pandemic and trying to actually build it into our office culture, the ability for people … to work remotely, to regularly telework, was with an eye towards retention,” he said.
Each lawmaker office sets its own workplace policies. Each has taken different approaches to deciding who, if anyone, can work in the office over the past year. The same approach is likely to apply when the risks from the pandemic abate.
“Each member is going to have to make their own decisions, moving forward on what comfort level their staff has, keeping in mind that most of us have the opportunity to have a few staff members vaccinated,” House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar said.
Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell doesn’t expect full in-person operations for congressional staff anytime soon.
“Life has permanently changed for the country. So people are going to have to respect each other’s space. You’re going to see people wear masks for a long time,” she said.
Dingell hasn’t allowed staff in the office in the last year and isn’t sure yet what safely operating in person will look like.
“I don’t want to have staff crammed in. We’ll have to figure it out,” she said.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said that having his whole staff vaccinated would be a starting point for when he’d start thinking about them returning to the office.
Other lawmakers, like Dingell and Aguilar, raised concerns about safety in the complex if staff are vaccinated but others working in the buildings, like contractors, media, custodial workers or those in other offices, are not vaccinated.
The introduction of proxy voting for House floor votes during the pandemic was the most significant change to the chamber’s voting system since electronic voting debuted in 1973. It was intended to be a short-term emergency measure, authorized for just 45 days, but has been continuously renewed since May.
Eventually, the Capitol’s attending physician will signal to Pelosi that the public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, and the allowance for proxy voting will cease.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer addressed proxy voting this week on a call with reporters, emphasizing that it was designed for use specifically during the pandemic. But he expects conversations about proxy voting and remote voting to continue.
“There is really no magic in being in a particular room when you vote. We vote by electronic device,” the Maryland Democrat said.
“Having said that, I think there is great merit and virtue to being with one another in a room, in a committee, on the floor, interfacing personally, having debate personally,” Hoyer added.
Kilmer was hesitant to speculate on proxy voting, which isn’t under his panel’s jurisdiction, but he said he could see situations under which it or something else could be appropriate beyond the pandemic.
“I have colleagues, for example, pre-pandemic, who are going through cancer treatment or other emergency situations. I can see some value in still being able to express your views on legislation and represent your constituents, even if you can’t be on the House floor,” he said.
Republican opposition to proxy voting was almost universal when implemented in May. GOP leaders urged their members not to utilize it. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy filed a lawsuit to challenge it.
But their position has been muddled of late, with several House Republicans voting by proxy as they attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida; some of the 150 plaintiffs took their names off McCarthy’s lawsuit.
The House proxy voting rules change also allowed committees to conduct hearings and markups virtually.
The Senate has leaned on a hybrid format, with some lawmakers in the room, others attending via video. Witnesses have also appeared both ways. There are mixed feelings about how to continue.
Murphy said he’s feeling Zoom fatigue and finds it challenging to fully engage and question witnesses via video.
“I’ve been going in-person almost every time I’ve asked questions,” he said. “I’ve done it in person because I find it very hard to do that by Zoom.”
Missouri Republican Roy Blunt, on the other hand, praised the Senate’s remote hearing model.
“I do think the hearings and remote hearings have been incredibly successful. And even when you have members here in the building, a lot of members prefer to participate that way. I think that’s one of the things that will last,” said Blunt, the ranking member of the Rules and Administration Committee.
Murphy acknowledged the flexibility that remote work affords staff and lawmakers and said he anticipates a shift toward acceptance of staffers being able to work from home more.
But Murphy is eager to get back into a room with fellow lawmakers.
“I worry that if everything is done by Zoom, we’ll never get off Zoom,” he said.
Ryan said remote committee meetings could have a lasting impact in the House, especially if the schedule changes implemented during COVID-19 persist, under which entire weeks are dedicated to committee work, with no floor votes scheduled.
“Not all of it, but I think a lot of the committee work can be done remotely,” he said.
Another big question: When will the Capitol welcome back tourists, school groups and history buffs.
The Capitol Visitor Center was approaching peak season when the pandemic sent tour guides home and the CVC shuttered to the public a year ago.
Architect of the Capitol employees don’t know when the CVC will reopen or what tours and other visitor services will eventually look like, but they expect operations to be different. There aren’t answers yet on who would be the authority on enforcing mask-wearing among visitors or if limits would be placed on group sizes.
Any predictions became more complex on Jan. 6, when the Capitol was overrun by mobs of pro-Trump insurrectionists. Health and safety questions have expanded to encompass physical and structural safety; investigations and implementing changes could take a while.
“At this point, we don’t even know what’s going to keep the CVC closed longer, the riot or COVID,” said one Architect of the Capitol employee who is familiar with CVC operations.
In the early stages of the pandemic, some lawmakers feared closing the Capitol would send a damaging message about the resilience of American democracy. Today, the most prominent symbol of the country’s democratic system sits behind two concentric fences topped with razor wire, with checkpoints guarded by National Guard troops and Capitol Police. On Tuesday, the Pentagon approved an extension of National Guard presence at the Capitol, with 2,300 troops expected to remain through May 23.
“I can’t imagine them letting visitors in, while the National Guard is guarding the building,” another AOC employee told CQ Roll Call.
Bridget Bowman and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.