Congress struggles to keep itself from getting sick
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are under increasing pressure from lawmakers to boost testing for the coronavirus in the Capitol, an idea they have so far rejected because of concerns about the availability of tests across the country.
Despite the unusual nature of work in the Capitol — lawmakers fly in and out weekly, from 50 states, and attend votes and hearings together — the two leaders have maintained that they will not institute a testing program for members, staff, or the hundreds of other people who work in the complex.
The lack of tracking was highlighted this week when a GOP lawmaker, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, found out he had contracted the virus. He was tested only because he had been scheduled to travel with Donald Trump.
Fearing Gohmert's frequent refusal to wear a mask could have caused other members and staff to become infected, Pelosi and Capitol officials quickly issued broad new mask requirements for the House. But the speaker maintained there would be no comprehensive testing for now, citing a lack of supplies, the logistics of regularly testing hundreds of people, and the fact that others across the country don't have the same access.
"It's the members of Congress and support staff and that's very many people," Pelosi told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "We can't say, well, as members, we should get tested but the other people shouldn't."
The dilemma for Congress is similar to the one facing workplaces and schools as they struggle to reopen. Lawmakers and staff during the summer have been wearing masks, keeping their distance, cleaning surfaces, limiting crowds, and working from their homes when possible. But it's difficult if not impossible to fully protect against the coronavirus without a robust system of testing and tracing, and there's a lack of infrastructure nationwide to make it happen.
Gohmert's positive test prompted immediate concerns across the Capitol as he had voted, walked the hallways, and attended two hearings on Tuesday, often without a mask. One of the hearings was with Attorney General Willam Barr, who immediately took a test that came back negative, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman. At least three of Gohmert's colleagues said they would quarantine because they interacted with him.
But it did not move the speaker on testing. Pelosi said they would need more equipment to test everyone in the Capitol and the results would take days to come back, making them "almost useless." They would also need personal protective equipment for those administering the tests that she said should go to health care providers and teachers.
Pelosi and McConnell cited those front-line workers when they rejected Trump's offer earlier this year to send rapid tests for lawmakers to the Capitol. The White House uses the rapid testing daily for anyone who will be in proximity to the president, which is how Gohmert found out he was infected. The Texas Republican was given two tests before he was scheduled to fly on Air Force One with Trump to his home state, and both came back positive.
"Our country's testing capacities are continuing to scale up nationwide and Congress wants to keep directing resources to the front-line facilities where they can do the most good the most quickly," Pelosi and McConnell said jointly in a May statement, thanking Trump for his offer but turning him down.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has pressured Pelosi to accept Trump's offer, writing in a letter Thursday that "the need for testing throughout Capitol Hill campus remains immediate." McCarthy said the failure to test "has created unnecessary risk and confusion for members, staff, press and all employees of the House."
McCarthy said at a news conference Thursday that he had spoken to the White House, and Trump's testing offer was still on the table.
McConnell has also faced pressure from fellow Republicans to boost testing. On Wednesday, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina all said they think there should be more robust testing around the complex.
Blunt said he was pushing McConnell to reconsider. He argued that they could prioritize testing for senators who had traveled to Washington from other areas, and test other members and staff on a less frequent basis.
"I think particularly for members of Congress who are going back and forth, they represent sort of the perfect petri dish for how you spread a disease," Blunt said. "You send 535 people out to 535 different locations, on about 1,000 different airplanes, and bring them back and see what happens."
Still, there appears to be less urgency in the Senate, where there are fewer lawmakers, office space is more spread out, and most are regularly wearing masks. One notable exception is McConnell's Kentucky colleague, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a doctor who says he doesn't need to wear a mask because he previously tested positive for the virus. There is no proven science saying that a person cannot get the virus again.
McConnell told PBS NewsHour "just about every one of my members is wearing a mask" and he didn't see a need for new mask mandates in the Senate because "we're getting compliance in the old-fashioned way, everybody's doing it."
On testing, some senators said they understood McConnell and Pelosi's concerns about special treatment. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he'd be fine with increased testing as long as it didn't take away from the needs of the general population.
"We shouldn't have access to testing that's any cheaper or faster than anybody else," Rubio said.
Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland agreed.
"Let's expand access to rapid testing on Capitol Hill, but also throughout the country," Van Hollen said. "That needs to be the goal."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation. Attribution to The Associated Press.