In the past two weeks, at least 10 members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19 — seven Republicans and three Democrats. But there are currently no plans to stop the practice of hundreds of lawmakers flying to Washington from districts across the country to cast votes in person.
Nationwide, the coronavirus is raging out of control with north of 150,000 positive cases per day, record numbers of people sick enough to be hospitalized, and a growing death toll. Public health officials are pleading with people to stay home for Thanksgiving to blunt an even bigger explosion in infections that could overwhelm hospitals across the country.
Congress has had a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases. Since the outbreak began, over 12 million people in the United States have tested positive — nearly 3.8% of the population. At least 27 members of the House, or 6% of the group, have caught the virus, while 9 senators, making up 9% of the Senate, have had COVID-19.
Many of these cases are recent. Over the weekend, Reps. Bryan Steil and Joe Courtney tested positive. Sen. Kelly Loeffler had a positive test this weekend, but is back on the campaign trail after two subsequent negative tests, her campaign announced. (She is not included in the numbers above.) Last week, Reps. Don Young, Tim Walberg, Cheri Bustos, Ed Perlmutter, Dan Newhouse, and Doug Lamborn all tested positive for the coronavirus, along with Sens. Rick Scott and Chuck Grassley. Meanwhile, Congress still hasn’t passed another wave of COVID-19 relief funding.
“This is emblematic of the way this pandemic has not really been taken seriously by the government and why we are in the situation that we’re in,” Amesh Adalja, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told BuzzFeed News.
The COVID-19 cases — as well as how to prevent more of them — have divided Congress along party lines.
Congressional Republicans have been disproportionately diagnosed with COVID-19. Several have flouted basic coronavirus precautions, from mask-wearing to avoiding large gatherings. Sens. Thom Tillis and Mike Lee tested positive after attending a crowded, mostly maskless ceremony at the White House’s Rose Garden celebrating Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination where several guests subsequently tested positive. Loeffler has campaigned maskless and recently attended at least one indoors rally ahead of her January runoff.
Despite public health guidelines, Congress is also divided on whether to keep members from traveling to and from Washington each week to cast votes in person.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office told BuzzFeed News that no changes are currently planned. The House does allow members to designate a proxy member to cast their vote for them, but does not allow remote voting. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office deferred to the House Rules Committee, which released a report this month deeming it feasible for the House to move to full remote voting. But the Committee told BuzzFeed News that actually moving to that system would be a question for the whole House to decide.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called remote voting “unproven, unsecure, and unconstitutional.” He accused Pelosi of trying to consolidate power and extinguish party tensions by keeping members at home.
Due to their age — the average senator is 64 years old — much of Congress is at a higher risk of getting gravely ill from the disease. (Alaska’s Rep. Young is the oldest member in Congress and was briefly hospitalized with the virus.) Meanwhile, they are also considered essential workers.
“We don’t know where they are getting infected. Let’s own up to that,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told BuzzFeed News. But “the science is real clear: You get the disease primarily from other people…so the best way to protect oneself in any work environment, as well as social environment, is to wear a mask, practice good hand hygiene, and keep your distance.”
A handful of Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, proposed a bill in October to require mask-wearing and social distancing in any Senate office building and the Senate wing of the Capitol, and to develop a program for testing and contact tracing for senators and their hundreds of staff members. The bill was referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration, and has stalled there.
To date, mask use in Congress is inconsistent. While many members of both parties do diligently mask up when heading in to vote, some, like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, refuse.
Tensions boiled over in the Senate last week when Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown admonished Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan for not wearing a mask. Sullivan was serving as the presiding officer, with clerks sitting in front of him.
When Brown asked Sullivan to wear a mask, Sullivan irritatedly snapped back. “I don’t wear a mask when I’m speaking, like most senators,” he said. “I don’t need your instruction.”
“I know you don’t need my instruction,” Brown responded. “But there clearly isn’t much interest in this body in public health.”