Trapped By The Coronavirus Pandemic, Congress Tries New Ways Of Legislating From Home | New Hampshire Public Radio

Trapped By The Coronavirus Pandemic, Congress Tries New Ways Of Legislating From Home

Apr 5, 2020
Originally published on April 7, 2020 10:00 am

The children's voices on the phone line were hesitant, but they were looking for answers.

"Why did we switch to remote learning?"

"When are we going to go back to school?"

"They're opening up an emergency hospital here, will that bring more coronavirus cases to my area?"

Those were some of the questions heard during a different kind of constituent event: a kid's congressional town hall by telephone. Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon recently hosted the event in an effort to try something new.

"It's kind of a nice bright spot for us, and the kids who called in," Scanlon said.

Congress is on a recess like none other. Lawmakers left for an extended recess last week, and won't return until April 20 or later as a result of the spreading coronavirus pandemic. And many are adhering to stay-at-home orders in their districts.

Just before they left, lawmakers approved a historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus response bill. Now, they're inundated with constituent questions about the how the legislation could help them.

This, as they work with state and local officials on shortages facing the health care industry in their regions and launch new legislative initiatives. And all mainly from home.

"Quite honestly, this is the least recess I've ever seen, even if you would call it a recess," said Republican Rep. Scott Perry.

Perry says he's seen a spike in interest from his Pennsylvania district.

Recently, he hosted a call for residents this week with a therapist. The event drew thousands of participants.

"On almost every single one of these calls we've been at max capacity and people still are seeking more information," he said. "As we go on and as our lives change, it requires a different kind of response."

"Find creative ways"

Congress' job has only grown more critical with the crisis. Last month, it approved three coronavirus response bills. And Democrats, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are already pushing for a fourth package to address growing woes facing families, the economy and the health care industry.

But this kind of legislating has its limits. Lawmakers still can't vote remotely and congressional leaders have shown little appetite to install such a move anytime soon. So efforts to approve new legislation will likely require lawmakers to return to Capitol Hill to vote.

Until then, they'll have to come up with new ideas to stay connected. Many say they are certain they will.

"We'll continue to find creative ways to do the business of the Congress, to speak truth to power, to hold the administration accountable and most importantly, to get things done on behalf of the American people," said New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.

Jeffries made the comments during a press call with several colleagues through Zoom video conferencing. The call was focused on emerging concerns facing Asian Americans in the wake of racist attacks linked to coronavirus.

Perry suggests all the remote work efforts are part of an extreme adjustment to the world of legislating, and that's made phone lines new lifelines to their work.

"Where in the past, we would have a full day of meetings in the office, every 15 to 20 minutes there is another meeting," he said. "Of course now, you don't have that personal connection. It's happening on the phone."

Since Perry and his team have already hosted several calls since the coronavirus outbreak began, he wanted to try something different by hosting a therapist recently.

Looking for answers

Recently, South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham joined an AARP call to explain the coronavirus relief package to seniors.

The hourlong event drew a slew of questions, including worried seniors who lost a job because of the pandemic.

"I have a wife that's on Social Security disability, if she gets this coronavirus, she will not make it ... so my question is, am I entitled to get any kind of unemployment?" one formerly self-employed worker asked the lawmakers.

He was assured he would.

Others asked if they would be eligible for cash payments under the new coronavirus relief bill and confusion on how to collect unemployment.

"Are retirees going to get any of this money?" one asked.

"Being a retiree will not keep you from collecting a check," Clyburn said.

"If you're breathing, and you make under $175,000, you'll get a check," Graham added to laughs.

The exchanges are the mark of a new normal for Congress, lawmakers say. And Scanlon argues it could impact the way Congress does its work in the future.

"It has been really amazing to see how much people are getting done without meeting face to face," Scanlon said. "I'm sure there will be lingering changes to how we do business after this."

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Well, Congress is on a recess like no other. Lawmakers could be away from Capitol Hill for the foreseeable future because of the coronavirus. Like a lot of Americans, they are working from home trying to deal with this life in a new normal. And now they are under pressure to help voters in their districts get the economic relief they so desperately need. Here's NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Before Congress left for an extended recess, it approved a historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus response bill. They may not return to Capitol Hill until April 20 or longer thanks to the pandemic. Now their days are a blur of phone calls and video conferences.

SCOTT PERRY: Quite honestly, this is the least recess I've ever seen, even if you would call it a recess.

GRISALES: That's Representative Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican. Members of Congress are translating how the new aid will help their districts as well as launching new legislative efforts in negotiating the crisis for constituents and all mainly from home.

PERRY: Your home is your office. It never ends.

GRISALES: He, like other lawmakers, are getting inundated with questions about the coronavirus response bill and pleas for help from people who are struggling. Recently, Democratic Representative James Clyburn and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham joined AARP on a phone call to talk with voters in South Carolina.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are retirees going to get any of this money?

JAMES CLYBURN: Being a retiree will not keep you from collecting the check.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yeah, let me just add to that. If you're breathing and you make under $75,000, you're going to get a check.

GRISALES: It's just one of many events House legislators and senators are hosting to try and stay in touch. Recently, Representative Mary Gay Scanlon had a different kind of call with residents in her district.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: When are we going to go back to school?

MARY GAY SCANLON: Oh, good question.

GRISALES: This virtual town hall was a first for the Pennsylvania Democrat, who took in questions from children of all ages. Scanlon says she's having to find new creative ways to connect with constituents. This event was one to help parents occupy kids who are stir crazy at home. It's all part of her 10-hour days where she now hosts meetings on social media platforms instead of her office.

SCANLON: Really just trying to manage information flow and push out as much useful information as we can.

GRISALES: For example, Perry, the Pennsylvania Republican, hosted a teletown hall recently with a therapist who has specialized in trauma. Here's Dr. Shauna Springer answering a question on how to support friends who lose loved ones right now.


SHAUNA SPRINGER: What I would say is that we have to create closure by coming together as we can as a community.

GRISALES: Perry said the event drew thousands of participants.

PERRY: On almost every single one of these calls, we've been at max capacity, and people still are seeking more information.

GRISALES: With most legislators back in their districts adhering to stay-at-home orders, they say their challenge now is keeping pace with tremendous demand for help during a pandemic. Scanlon says Congress is forced to figure out how to work in new ways.

SCANLON: It has been really amazing to see how much people are getting done without having to meet face to face. I'm sure there will be lingering changes to how we do business after this.

GRISALES: For now, these strategies are the best way of learning what relief voters want or need when lawmakers return to vote on the next coronavirus bill.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.