The 117th Congress opens Sunday, and it will convene in the shadow of the death of one of its own from coronavirus. Louisiana Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, 41, died from Covid-19 complications Tuesday, just weeks after being elected to Congress.
His tragic passing should be a warning to Congress. If a young, otherwise healthy person could die as a result of the virus, no one in Congress — a body whose average age is much higher and whose members are thus vulnerable — is safe.
The only responsible thing to do, since Congress has thus far made Covid-19 testing available to members, but not mandatory, is for House and Senate leadership to mandate that anyone entering the Capitol building — members, staff, Capitol police, support staff and journalists covering Congress — receive the vaccine. This could be done via legislation or by each chamber changing its own rules, one of the very first votes of each Congress.
Vaccinating our representatives in Washington will help ensure that they can discharge their duties for the rest of us at a pivotal moment in America.
Recognizing the challenges of Covid, the House has already been making some changes. The first day of Congress is typically chaotic — with members and their families jamming the House floor and visitor galleries. According to guidance from the House Sergeant at Arms and House Attending Physician, the only guests allowed this year will be for members-elect, and these will be limited to one. Swearing-in of the 435 members will be done in groups of 72, as opposed to the House swearing-in en masse.
But 72 is higher than the District of Columbia’s guideline limiting mass gatherings to 50 people. Each round of swearing-in essentially represents a potential super spreader event, as members and members-elect (Letlow would have been among them this year) descend on Washington from every community in America, some potentially bringing Covid-19 with them from home or during travel, and potentially taking the virus back home with them. How does that make sense?
Indeed, beyond outright infection risk, Covid has presented a fearsome challenge to Congress, which simply isn’t working as it should. During a recent meeting before the holiday break with a Member of Congress, I saw hallways and offices that were completely, eerily, empty. Staff, by and large, can’t come to work, can’t grease the wheels of legislative progress through human interaction, can’t haggle and persuade and compromise in impromptu meetings, away from home, balancing constituents needs and desires with those of the whole nation.
Amid Covid fears, absent members may miss votes, hearings and important briefings. In normal times, the work of Congress includes –according to the Constitution and each body’s own rules — 435 people, or 100 in the Senate, all in a room at the same time to vote. The House has loosened this rule during the pandemic, and many members have had to quarantine and/or are voting by proxy. Some Republicans are even doing so despite House Republicans’ May lawsuit attempting to disallow proxy voting (that suit was dismissed in August). The Senate has not changed this rule, however.
Consider that, so far, 106 representatives or Senators have either tested positive for Covid-19, been quarantined or exposed to someone with the virus, according to govtrack.com. And the reality is that we have to assume that many others have had the virus but were asymptomatic and never tested.
Like testing, the vaccine is available but not mandatory for members. And both representatives and senators will be allowed to choose two staffers to receive the vaccination (four staffers in the offices of committee chairpersons and the ranking member) — setting up an office-by-office “Hunger Games” among staff over who is deemed important enough to receive the vaccine.
It is easy to see why it’s in everyone’s best interest that such limitations be removed. Without mandatory testing and vaccination of all personnel in the Capitol buildings lawmakers can’t effectively do their job — can’t deal effectively with Covid response, economic recovery, national security, and more.
Some may oppose the vaccine for members of Congress and senators because many among them were dismissive of the virus at first, rejecting the wearing of masks and other precautions or resisting increased testing or relief bills. Some may call their skipping to the head of the line hypocritical.
It may be hypocritical, and indeed is frustrating. But punitively choosing which members and Senators receive the vaccine based on their voting record or tweets is a pointless payback fantasy, and not what the country needs.
And that is for Congress to get back to the people’s work — and at full speed.