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For months Capitol Hill has struggled with how to contain the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
But even as the rest of the world slowly got a better handle on the spread of the virus, infections among US lawmakers in Washington DC have continued to rise and there hasn’t been a singular medical authority enforcing a blanket set of rules for all members of Congress and their staffers.
As a result, the virus has roared through the ranks of America’s elected leaders, and their teams of aides, at a shockingly high rate. By the end of November, more than 25 members of Congress and at least 150 workers have been infected, or were presumed to be infected, according to NPR.
That has lead some members of Congress, and privately some congressional staffers, to complain about a lack of direction about how to safely go about lawmaking in Congress – including on bills responding to the pandemic.
Now though lawmakers and the office in charge of legislators’ health are trying to get a better handle on the pandemic in their own workplace. Curbing the coronavirus on Capitol Hill is uniquely important because lawmakers still have to legislate during the pandemic and many of them are within the parameters experts consider high risk. At moments Congressional staffers have not gotten the same directives as elected officials during the pandemic as well.
Over the last few days there have been substantial changes to aspects of Congress and the precautions taken for the coronavirus pandemic.
The Office of the Attending Physician, which is responsible for the health of members of Congress, recently sent out a set of new directives for traveling to and from Washington DC, quarantining and working on Capitol Hill. Previously, in November, the Associated Press reported that the OAP took steps to make coronavirus testing more available for members of Congress and staff.
Those December directives from the OAP come as Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker and highest ranking Democrat in Congress, announced an expansion of Covid-19 testing administered with the help of the Air Force over the next six weeks or so as well as new travel restrictions.
Pelosi’s Senate counterpart, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell, spent months working with the OAP to try figure out a way to retain in-person Senate weekly lunches, a weekly tradition. But more recently he and other Republicans relented, deciding instead to hold them over conference call.
There is already a mandate to wear masks in the House of Representatives and many offices for lawmakers have taken additional steps like emphasizing working remotely to avoid potential coronavirus exposure. Other congressional leaders have been pushing for expanded testing for months.
But that hasn’t been enough to halt the coronavirus spread among lawmakers or fighting among senators over precautions. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, one of the older members of the Senate, recently returned to his Washington office after quarantining because he tested positive for Covid-19.
He was one of the latest senators to test positive. Others included Republican senators Ron Johnson, Thom Tillis and Mike Lee. Members of the House have tested positive as well. Even though over three dozen lawmakers have said they have either tested or “presumed” positive for the virus according to NPR, there have been no deaths as yet.
In November a feud between Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Texas senator Ted Cruz began over a dispute about wearing a mask on the Senate floor. That feud is still ongoing and Brown’s team recently sent out a fundraising email recounting it.
But there has still been an inconsistency among American lawmakers at large and the OAP since the pandemic started over how to handle the virus. A review of previous sets of guidelines by the OAP shows there is no final authority for implementing a comprehensive coronavirus policy for Capitol Hill lawmakers and staff.
Many of the guidelines from the OAP are recommendations rather than hardcore rules with a set penalty.
In a set of guidelines from May, for instance, the OAP said: “The US Capitol Police will not take enforcement actions regarding face coverings. If a visitor is not adhering to a specific office policy, and the office manager is requesting that individual be removed from the office, the US Capitol Police will assist with his request.”
Those May guidelines also said that “Offices should not require a doctor’s note to return to the workplace after resolution of their symptoms but will rely upon the individual’s assurance that they have consulted with their primary care provider.”
Another set of guidelines from 21 October said: “Face coverings are not required in outdoor settings when 6ft separation between individuals is able to be maintained. If unable to maintain separation in outdoor public spaces, the use of face coverings is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.”
Still, some lawmakers have argued that a consistent approach to curbing the pandemic among members or passing relief legislation has been too slow.
“Senator Brown has been clear that Congress, as a whole, took way too long to implement science-backed policies to protect staff and members, such as encouraging social distancing and mask wearing,” Brown’s office said in a statement. “He has been outspoken that we should be following the science and ensuring that workers are not endangered by being on Capitol grounds. ”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: US Congress slow to issue directives as Covid spreads at a high rate among lawmakers | US Congress