WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., welcomed the birth of his first grandchild. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, worked on some kitchen skills, like perfectly cooking a piece of tuna. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, caught the virus himself, but is now recovered and chomping at the bit to get back to Washington.
And they pushed out some $2.8 trillion in less than two months — all while communicating over spotty conference calls and confined to makeshift home offices, like most Americans, amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The pandemic has required Congress to move at warp speed — by Washington’s standards — to approve a staggering amount of money in the form of direct cash payments to Americans, emergency loans to businesses and health care spending to stamp out the virus that has upended American life.
For lawmakers, whose job requires constant face-to-face meetings and public scrutiny, that has meant coming together in virtual spaces to approve the largest economic rescue package in U.S. history. They passed the measures without any public committee meetings, lengthy floor speeches or rallies and protests common with any major piece of legislation.
The extraordinary period of virtual legislating showed the remarkable efficiency lawmakers can achieved when prompted by a national crisis, Congressional experts said.
But it also exposed some public transparency issues as some hastily created programs have run into administrative problems that might have been ironed out in the usual process. In the coming weeks, Congress must find a way to facilitate what likely will be a contentious debate over a fourth major round of COVID-19 legislation, said Margaret L. Taylor, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“Huge pieces of legislation are not moving through committees and markups and floor debates in the way legislation normally would,” Ms. Taylor said. “I think it’s important to recognize you lose something in that.
“There has to be some kind of resumption of the normal functions of Congress, or else they’re going to lose whatever clout they have gained over the last month and continue a downward slide into almost irrelevance.”
In the daily grind of Capitol Hill, bills go through a political wringer. They are sent through committee markup hearings that often consume an entire day, then are subject to negotiations with party leadership to pass the chamber as a whole. Then both the House and Senate must hammer out any differences between their versions of the bill and approve a measure that the president will sign.
In the first three rounds of COVID-19 bills, the formula has been top-down: Democratic and Republican leaders from both chambers meeting with White House officials like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to reach a deal.
That has cemented a trend that has played out even in normal times, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies Congress and polarization.
“The legislative process, over the last decade or two, has been increasingly centralized in party leaders’ hands,” Ms. Binder said. “As imperfect a remote participation might be, it’s really better than no participation.”
Some Pittsburgh-area lawmakers are getting restless.
Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, said he has demanded House leaders find a way to hold regular committee hearings to examine how the Trump administration is managing the COVID-19 programs.
Concerning issues with the small business loan program, Mr. Lamb said, “we should have a hearing the next day with the head of the Small Business Administration asking them under oath why that is. And we still haven’t done that. Everything’s happening behind closed doors.”
Mr. Kelly, the Butler Republican and a fiscal hawk, called for lawmakers to have greater say in any additional spending.
“Any future relief packages should not be made top-down by a handful of congressional leaders and their staffs,” Mr. Kelly said. “We must get the People’s House moving again either virtually or safely in-person so Representatives can debate not just future COVID-19 bills, but the many other legislative items that have been delayed because of the pandemic.”
Both chambers of Congress have moved to explore options.
The House, which has indefinitely delayed its return to Washington, held a virtual meeting with almost two dozen House committee chairs, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a virtual hearing on veteran homelessness.
“Videoconferencing technologies can work for Congress to conduct our business remotely during this unprecedented time,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “I am confident that the Virtual Congress Task Force will be able to reach a bipartisan agreement on changes to the rules of the House to allow for remote work during this pandemic.”
Transforming an election year
On the other side of the U.S. Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not put off sessions, ordering senators back to Washington this week for an agenda of votes on administration and judicial nominees. Still, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations met virtually last Thursday to consider the question of how to hold meetings remotely.
Mr. Casey said the Senate has tried to replicate regular lunch-hour policy conferences and meetings among members through video calls.
“You sometimes have to make a strategic decision as a caucus, like what do you do about a $250 billion small business proposal, leaving out all these different priorities,” Mr. Casey said in an interview last month, as the Senate Democrats blocked such a plan sponsored by Republicans.
(The Senate later agreed on a bill with $320 billion for small business loans and added funding for testing and health care providers.)
“Mostly, it’s used for comparing ideas, giving each senator a chance to emphasize a priority or suggest something for the next bill or tell about what’s happening in their state,” Mr. Casey said.
The pandemic has transformed an election year — usually light on legislating and heavy on electioneering — into a rush to meet high demand for information from constituents.
Mr. Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said his emailed newsletters have been opened by 47,000 people — more than double the typical readership — and a recent telephone town hall had 12,000 people on the line. His office downloads answering machines every hour, and staff members respond accordingly.
“The response is incredible,” Mr. Doyle said. “Some people want to speak to me directly, and I get those names and phone numbers and I pick up the phone and I call them.”