Congress in Crisis is Congress at Work

Matt Glassman | April 1, 2020

In response to the global coronavirus pandemic, three major bills were passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump in March. On March 6, the president signed into law H.R.6074, an $8.3 billion supplemental appropriations bill, mostly aimed at providing additional funding for the Department of Health and Human Services to combat coronavirus. On March 18, Congress passed and the president signed H.R.6201, a second supplemental that provided further emergency funding and included provisions requiring paid sick leave, increased unemployment benefits, and free testing for the disease. Finally, this past Friday Congress approved H.R.748, a $2.2 trillion general relief and economic stimulus package for individuals and businesses.

What does this flurry of action tell us about Congress?

First, Congress is capable of acting quickly and decisively in a crisis. Perhaps the most common analysis of the 116th Congress—right up until the pandemic—was that divided government was producing very little substantive legislation. As of March 1, only 116 public laws had been enacted this Congress, and close to half of them were non-controversial legislation like the renaming of post offices. 

The consensus view was that partisanship was preventing bi-cameral work on anything except must-pass appropriations bills. In the meantime, each chamber was resorting to unilateral activities unrelated to lawmaking. The House was focused on executive branch oversight; the Senate on confirming judicial nominations.

Congressional action in response to the pandemic, however, has been quick, overwhelming, and bipartisan. All three bills passed both chambers with supermajorities from both parties supporting them.

Furthermore, the development of the bills has reflected congressional leadership on the issue. It is a common view that in crises, legislative authority must give way to executive power, which has the natural advantages of unitary decision-making and dispatch.

But the federal pandemic response has, to date, largely been driven by Congress. Many of the president’s policy proposals—both in substance (payroll tax cut) and scope (initial $2.5B supplemental funding request)—have been ignored, and negotiations had a tri-party character, with House, Senate, and administration officials hammering out deals, at the Capitol.

Second, legislative politics, even in a crisis, will often be messy. Even when it acts quickly in response to a crisis, congressional action is still going to reflect the legislative realities of collective decision-making. This was on full display in March.

Party leaders bickered publicly about what did and did not belong in the bills. Individual Representatives complained about being shut out of the process. Interest-groups jockeyed to influence provisions that affected their members. And Senators in both parties threatened to hold up the legislation indefinitely until their demands were met.

For many people—pundits and citizens alike—this behavior seemed unbecoming, an indication that Congress was not up to the task of a serious response to a global crisis. But that mostly reflected a misunderstanding of why we value legislative governance.

It’s true that if you don’t want public bickering or the airing of provincial concerns or the pursuit of narrow interests to be part of the lawmaking process, it would probably be more satisfying if Congress simply delegated authority to the executive branch and let the president govern.

But that strategy would sacrifice the three key advantages of legislative governance. First, diversity of opinion. The collective may not always be wiser than the individual, but it usually is, and that’s because individuals have blind-spots. Legislatures by their very nature capture wider points of view than unitary executive leaders.

Second, representation. Local communities matter, and legislatures ensure that their voices are heard in policy debates that might otherwise center too much on the overall national impact. And finally, deliberation. Policy ideas are tested in a legislature and cannot pass without facing a full public cross-examination by their opponents.

Finally, a viral pandemic poses unique challenges for Congress.  A legislature is inherently a collection of people who must interact. When the public health response to a pandemic requires the isolation of people with the virus and the social distancing of the healthy, the day-to-day workings of Congress themselves become a danger to the members.

Congress responded initially to this threat in March by first closing the public galleries in the House and Senate, and later closing the entire Capitol complex to the public, allowing only Members and staff inside the buildings.

After several Representatives and Senators tested positive for the coronavirus, members in both chambers began proactively isolating themselves from their colleagues, and Senators were urged to not congregate in the well of the Senate. When the House returned to Washington last Friday to pass the third relief measure, some members sat in the gallery to maintain distance between themselves.

A fierce debate has opened over whether Congress should go further, perhaps by instituting provisions that allow for remote voting by Members who are in isolation and should not be on the chamber floors, or even by allowing Congress to meet completely remotely, with all members voting from their districts.

Several bills have been introduced by Members to implement such remote voting, but thus far congressional leaders have resisted the idea. There are certainly drawbacks; remote voting almost certainly increases the power of the leaders over individual members, and perhaps also the president if Congress becomes out-of-sight, out-of-mind in DC.

But if the alternative becomes a legislature that can’t function effectively because a large number of members are either sick or won’t risk assembling in Washington, Congress may have no choice but to implement rules that provide for decentralized decision-making.

The shape of things to come is likely to continue with these congressional lawmaking trends: faster, volatile, and novel, to meet the demands of a pandemic.  All eyes are on Washington.

Matt Glassman is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute


Categories: 116th Congress, Congressional Leadership, Congressional Update, Leadership, Legislative Process, Media Center, Revise & Extend, Updates