by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Congress needs to act quickly to pass whatever legislation is necessary to counter the coronavirus crisis in part because the pandemic threatens its own ability to function properly.
There aren’t clear procedures or plans in place for the possibility that many members become unable to return to Capitol Hill, as has already happened in several cases, raising the prospect of congressional powerlessness and constitutional confusion.
A dozen members of Congress already have said they would self-quarantine because they had been exposed to the virus.
Should that number swell or other concerns prevent lawmakers from returning to work, it could leave Congress unable to function, said John Fortier, the director of Governmental Studies at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Under the longstanding rules of both chambers, members have to be physically present to conduct official business. McConnell said Tuesday he wasn’t interested in changing the rules.
“There is no way that a member could remotely vote on the House or Senate floor” under the respective chambers’ current rules, Fortier said. The House and Senate could still vote if enough members for a quorum were present but there’s no guarantee that that Congress will have that many in a crisis.
Virus-related vacancies could also lead to odd situations were the majority party might not have a majority present. The Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning only a handful of losses could rob them of a voting majority. “If you were to try to abuse the situation there are rules about quorums which would allow a small number of the other party to object and you wouldn’t get what you wanted,” he said.