CT lawmakers grapple with how to serve constituents, conduct duties, in coronavirus crisis
Social media, videos and Twitter replace face-to-face contact with constituents
Washington – Because of the coronavirus crisis, Connecticut’s members of Congress have gone from pancake breakfasts, parades and town fairs, to near self-isolation — reaching out virtually to their worried constituents through tele-town halls and other social media.
For Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, his base of operation is his kitchen table in Vernon that holds the laptop he uses to connect with his constituents and party leaders in Washington D.C. He also said he has learned a new way of appearing on local television news shows.
“I’ve learned to do FaceTime interviews,” Courtney said.
Congress has plans that would allow it to keep functioning in the event of many possible emergencies, but there was no game plan for the coronavirus crisis, which makes it dangerous for legislative bodies to congregate – something that is inherent to debating legislation and voting for it. The ability to draw a crowd is also the mother’s milk of politics and Connecticut’s lawmakers are turning to the internet to connect.
Members of the U.S. House are currently scattered across the country. They are fearful about boarding airplanes to return to Washington D.C. if they must vote in person for the next massive coronavirus bill, which is under negotiation now in the Senate.
The only way lawmakers would be spared the trip is if all 435 House members agree to approve the legislation by unanimous consent, which would not be possible if even one lawmaker objects.
Courtney says he’s bought an airline ticket to return to the nation’s capital, but hopes he doesn’t need to use it.
Meanwhile, Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said it’s his duty to show up.
“When votes are scheduled in the House I will head back to Washington and vote,” Larson said. “I believe it is our duty to vote in the Capitol when our nation is in crisis.”
The Senate is still in session here, hoping to reach an agreement on a massive new coronavirus bill and vote on a final deal soon. Five GOP senators won’t cast a ballot, though, part of a group of more than 30 lawmakers who have announced steps to self-quarantine or as a precaution after either coming into direct contact with an infected individual or contracting COVID-19 themselves.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the coronavirus crisis prompted him to drive down from Connecticut to Washington D.C. instead of using his normal method of transportation – a train or a plane. And, after the Senate votes on the coronavirus bill, Blumenthal said he will drive back.
He said it doesn’t matter much if he’s in Washington or Connecticut. “I almost feel that I am home because I’m doing three or four teleconferences every day,” Blumenthal said. “I feel I am doing as much here than if I were physically (in Connecticut) because I would be limited in the amount of traveling I could do around the state.”
Still, the last time Blumenthal was in Connecticut, he did attend several public events, including a visit to a food bank in Bloomfield, “where we all kept our distance,” he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. has reached out to constituents by a nightly “COVID-19 update” that features a video of the senator discussing the issues of the day – the latest one from his front porch –distributed on Twitter.
Meanwhile, the tele-town hall has become a staple of the coronavirus crisis.
Larson has held three of them, each drawing between 2,600 and 4,000 callers. The lawmaker used these virtual town halls to explain what Congress was doing during the crisis. That chiefly was approving billions of dollars to respond to the coronavirus and relaxing restrictions on the a number of things, from Medicaid and Medicare benefits to school lunches.
The calls Larson received included questions about how one could get a coronavirus test, what symptoms indicate a case of COVID-19 that requires hospitalization and whether a school cafeteria worker qualifies to a new paid sick leave program (Larson assured the caller the worker does qualify.)
The number and variety of questions challenge lawmakers whose constituents are facing problems that no one in Congress imagined before.
For instance, at one of Larson’s town halls, a caller asked for help for an elderly relative with COPD who lives in a U.S. Housing and Urban Development complex in Middletown. It has been locked down to protect those seniors from coronavirus.
But the lockdown also prevents the relative from receiving her Meals on Wheels since the delivery man can’t access her unit and the relative is too weak to go to the door on the first floor of her building.
Larson said the lockdown “seems to be incredibly draconian” and he would speak to the governor and the Middletown mayor’s office.
“The coronavirus has changed the way the Congress conducts business, but we are making the best of it,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. ” One of the parts of the job that I enjoy most is meeting with constituents, whether that is at Office Hours, a business or school visit, or attending community events.”
Like her colleagues DeLauro is relying on tele-town halls and teleconferences to keep in touch.
“Having myself and health experts on the line to answer questions is the right thing to do, and I plan to continue that practice in the coming weeks,” she said.
DeLauro has also changed the way she connects with her family.
“I am blessed to have kids and six beautiful grandchildren who I love to FaceTime and Zoom with as we spend some time apart,” she said. “We are all doing our part to keep each other safe, and I hope that our example helps others know that they are not alone in this.”
All of the Connecticut lawmakers staffers, both in Washington D.C. and those in their state and district offices, are teleworking.
“It’s been operating pretty well,” Blumenthal said.
However, Courtney is concerned that constituents may interpret the shuttered offices as a sign their federal lawmakers aren’t working.
“I begin each [tele-town hall] with the message that we are open –and close them that way too,” Courtney said.
He said the questions he receives at those town halls run the gamut from “whether [members of Congress] get to the front of the buffet line” when it comes to coronavirus tests to what’s going on at Electric Boat.
With the likelihood Congress may have to return to Washington D.C to vote on a fourth and even a fifth coronavirus bill, there’s growing pressure on congressional leaders to allow remote voting.
“I think there is a powerful sentiment for a remote voting system,” Blumenthal said.
The issue of televoting was raised frequently in a two-hour teleconference Speaker Nancy Pelosi held Tuesday with House Democrats.
“We must send the right message to the country by operating remotely. Immediately,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. “Hill technical staff should set up a voting station in every member’s home.”
DeLauro said “if we are summoned back to Washington to vote on the next coronavirus package, I will probably drive back with my husband.”
“We are lucky to live close enough to do that in short order, but I know that is a major constraint for many of my colleagues who live much farther away—sometimes even an ocean away,” she said.
A recent report by the House Rules Committee, however, concluded that allowing members of Congress to vote remotely would be too ambitious an undertaking to quickly implement in the midst of a global health crisis.
“A rule change of this magnitude would also be one of the biggest rule changes in the last century, in one of the most critical institutions in our country,” the report says. “It would require major changes to foundational House rules surrounding deliberation, voting, and attendance, which would almost certainly cause unintended consequences if not done with adequate forethought and discussion.”
Even if congressional leaders agreed to a new process of remote voting during times of national emergencies, the rules change would have to be voted on, in person.
The only way around that would be for all 100 senators and 435 House members to agree to a rules change by unanimous consent, thereby avoiding a roll call vote.
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