The number of COVID-19 cases from the delta variant has risen at an alarming rate, forcing many companies and government agencies to revert to previous remote-work policies. The daily average of confirmed cases has roughly quadrupled over the past month. At this pace, the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub predicts that the coronavirus surge will accelerate through the summer and fall and peak in mid-October, with daily deaths tripling current rates.
Delta has become the dominant variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It composes roughly 80% of cases nationwide and, according to experts, it is nearly twice as transmissible as the original strain and can quickly lead to “hyperlocal outbreak.” This has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend that people – including those fully vaccinated – once again wear masks indoors.
Washington, D.C., has seen a four-fold increase in cases since the beginning of July. At the White House, staff are required to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Congress has already been impacted by multiple breakthrough infections among vaccinated lawmakers and staffers. Just this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham announced that he tested positive for COVID, after having been fully vaccinated. This came days after he attended a meeting with a small group of senators and in the homestretch of what promises to be a close vote on the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure package. The Office of the Attending Physician has required House members and encouraged senators to wear masks on the floor and in the hallways.
When the world was faced with the pandemic 18 months ago, governments were forced to adapt. At that time, we urged Congress to adopt rules allowing members to conduct their business remotely. While some progress was made in the House, the Senate has fallen short, and both chambers need more permanent solutions.
In the 116th Congress, the House of Representatives modified its rules to incorporate proxy voting on the House floor and remote deliberations in committees. Proxy voting authorizes members to cast votes for colleagues who are not physically present. Since then, proxy voting has been used in the way it was intended: to protect lawmakers from exposure to the coronavirus or to facilitate work that would otherwise be difficult or impossible, given the added burdens of travel and family care during the pandemic. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has extended proxy voting in the House until Aug. 17 and may extend it until the end of the year.
Unfortunately, coronavirus mitigation procedures have become a partisan issue in Washington, with House Republicans opposing proxy voting since its implementation and several GOP members being fined by the House sergeant-at-arms for refusing to wear masks on the House floor. House GOP leadership even sued Pelosi, alleging that proxy voting was unconstitutional. In mid-July, the D.C. federal appeals court unanimously rejected the lawsuit, determining that the House can establish its own rules and that proxy voting falls within the conduct of the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution.
While this procedure was a step in the right direction, proxy voting remains a stopgap solution that still requires in-person presence for some members, which creates a serious vulnerability. Since the pandemic began, more than 127 members of Congress have publicly disclosed that they tested positive, self-quarantined, or had otherwise come in contact with someone who tested positive. Two Republican lawmakers died from COVID complications. On Dec. 29, 2020, just a week before taking office, Congressman-elect Luke Letlow of Louisiana passed away of COVID. On Feb. 7, 2021, Texas Rep. Ron Wright died two weeks after contracting it.
Still, the Senate chose not to modify its legislative operations. The chamber also requires that committees have a majority of senators present to report legislation. The Senate has already seen one instance where the virus forced lawmakers to modify its calendar. In October 2020, then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell changed the legislative schedule after multiple senators tested positive, delaying floor activity for two weeks. With the current 50-50 composition of lawmakers in the Senate, any senator contracting COVID or forced to quarantine could tip the balance of power and throw the chamber into chaos.
Fortunately, a bipartisan effort to address Senate continuity has been introduced. Sponsored by Dick Durbin and Rob Portman, it would amends the Senate Standing Rules to allow senators to use certified technology to cast votes outside of the chamber in circumstances when the majority and minority leaders jointly determine that an “extraordinary crisis of national extent exists.” We believe that we are at that moment.
The rise of the delta variant — the latest but likely not the last SARS-CoV-2 mutation — should renew congressional calls to examine and implement standing procedures that ensure continuity-of-government operations. Continuity-of-Congress provisions in both chambers not only protect lawmakers from harm but also protect congressional staff and support office staff, Capitol Hill essential workers, reporters, and those employed within the legislative agencies.
The time to act is now. Congress must be able to function in all circumstances. There can be no lapse in the continuity of the legislative branch. The integrity of our political process depends on it. Power must remain in the hands of our congressional representatives and in the collective hands of the voters they represent.