Apr 15, 2020

Coronavirus and Congress: What You Need to Know

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus around the globe has upended society in nearly every facet imaginable – affecting billions of people’s daily lives. The United States has already seen a tremendous impact stemming from this outbreak. Strained hospitals, shuttered businesses, and millions seeking new unemployment claims have become some of the defining features of how the coronavirus has altered American society. Congress plays an integral role in ensuring the federal government can both continue functioning on an effective basis and protecting Americans of all stripes during this epochal moment in history. So, what has Congress done so far and what mechanisms are in place to help ensure the continuity of government? 

Congress’s Initial Response  

Three packages of legislation have marked the initial response taken by Congress to combat the fallout of the outbreak during the month of March. Specifically, these packages – worth over $2 trillion – have been aimed at keeping the American economy afloat and bolstering the capacities of state and local governments. Here’s a look at what’s included in these packages, which have been signed into law by the president: 

  • $139 billion is to be allocated to state and local government proportionally based on population with no state government receiving less than $125 billion.  
  • The airline industry, suffering massive economic losses due to the drop-off in domestic and international travel, is receiving $29 billion in loans and an additional $29 billion in grants.  
  • Hospitals and health care providers are receiving $100 billion to cover for lost revenue, reimbursements, and new protective equipment, while research and development around a vaccine will receive an additional $27 billion.  
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency will receive $45 billion to assist state and local government in purchasing personal protective equipment; enhance airport security and sanitation; protect firefighters; and increase the amount of available shelter, food, and services.  
  • $14 billion will give the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) the ability to pay farmers for loses and $9.5 billion will be allocated to the USDA to combat closures of farmers markets and restaurants.  
  • The Pentagon will receive $10.5 billion to help care for the health of defense personnel.  
  • Prisons will get $950 million to purchase protective equipment supplies for officers and inmate medical care.  
  • Lastly, the U.S. Capitol complex will receive $93 million to further sanitary upkeep and allow members to safely function while the federal excise tax paid by distillers on alcohol will be waived to increase the ease of hand sanitizer production.  

Resources: Institutional Operations 

In addition to Congress working to address systemic issues such as those mentioned above, questions remain surrounding the institution’s functions during this time. After all, our democracy is not immune to coronavirus and will be tested during this crisis. That is where continuity of our government comes into play: 

What does presidential succession look like? Article II of the Constitution outlines the presidential succession process and the 20th and 25th Amendments also provide some clarity. The Vice President shall exercise the powers and duties of the presidency when the presidency is vacant, and that Congress can provide for succession beyond the Vice President through the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate. However, the Constitution does not address issues of congressional continuity when members are not able to be physically present to carry out their legislative duties. Read more here.   

Can Congress function if everyone is not able to attend? Already, some members of Congress have needed to self-isolate out of precaution from potential exposure to the coronavirus while others have been diagnosed. If many members need to self-isolate, Congress should look to utilize the flexibility present under its current set of rules and begin instituting plans in case members cannot safely come to Washington. Technology and communications tools enable remote proceedings that would not have been possible even a few years ago. However, they also need to be strengthened and new ones developed to facilitate this process. Take a look at what that might look like here

How can members vote remotely? The idea of remote voting has become increasingly salient as individuals are discouraged from spending time near one another, especially in large groups. Maintaining the health of members of Congress is important at this juncture, and remote voting may have a role to play in limited or extraordinary circumstances. However, this would uproot some of the key institutional functions of America’s legislative body that could pose some problems in a total shift to a so-called “virtual Congress.” Check out the pros and cons of remote voting here

What if a member of Congress cannot perform his or her job due to incapacitation? Safeguards exist to deal with an incapacitated president, but no direction is provided for an incapacitated member of Congress. Congress has been grappling with this issue amid the coronavirus outbreak and a contingency plan must be reached in the event a large number of members of Congress become unable to carry out their constitutional duties. See more here.  

Does proxy voting play a role? Proxy voting is a process in which a member of Congress, who expects to be absent from a vote, gives permission to a chairman, ranking member, or another member to cast a vote on their behalf. Such voting is allowed in the Senate in the committee process but has since been eliminated in the House. This system might be able to facilitate the operation of committees when members are absent, helping limit the number of people in Congress on a regular basis absent large votes on the floor (for which proxy voting is not allowed). Both chambers could devise a proxy-like procedure to allow proxy voting on a preliminary vote while conducting the final passage via more traditional methods. Find out more about this system here.  

Congress has acted legislatively under extraordinary circumstances to mitigate the impact the novel coronavirus is having on American society. However, Congress must now consider ways to allow the institution to function safely and effectively in the meantime. Now, more than ever, Congress is needed to ensure the federal government is working to ensure the safety of Americans, which includes taking steps to protect itself and its institutional processes from virus-driven incapacitation.  

Is Congress Working for You?