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WASHINGTON — Two members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than two dozen are self-quarantining because they’ve been in contact with someone who’s contracted it. But Congress remains in session, as do the congressional staff, many of whom are frightened as they are forced to continue to work in the Capitol.
“Why are we here? Why are we risking our health? To protect the stock market?” said one staffer who, at the time, was walking the halls of the Capitol, stopping mid-sentence to add, “it’s a ghost town.”
Nearly a dozen congressional staffers who spoke to BuzzFeed News asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs. But all of them were eager to jump on the phone or text to unleash their frustrations and bewilderment about the global pandemic and the fact that Congress has remained in Washington, gathering in groups far larger than the 10 recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While staffers appreciate the gravity of the situation, most of them wished they had more direction.
“I think what the real frustration is is that we have not gotten any guidance from leadership in regards to when members are supposed to be coming back and voting,” another staffer told BuzzFeed News. “I think that after those people tested positive at AIPAC and CPAC [conferences focused on Israel and conservative politics, respectively, which both took place in recent weeks], they should have immediately shut the buildings down and they should have allowed all of us to start teleworking at that point.”
The sergeant-at-arms, in consultation with the House’s attending physician and leadership, limited visitor tours in the Capitol on Thursday until April 1. Since then, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sent “dear colleague” letters out to staff with suggestions on having staff work from home, but has so far not agreed to calls to have members vote remotely (the House is currently in recess, but plans to return to DC in the coming days). On Thursday, Pelosi called on House Rules Committee chair Rep. Jim McGovern to conduct a study to determine whether or not having members of Congress vote remotely is feasible.
“Our whole office is teleworking,” said one staffer. “However, I do believe it’s unbelievable that any office would make their staff come into work when the CDC has recommended the exact opposite.”
Most House staffers are working from home, but in some offices, the congressional team rotates between full and half days, single-handedly manning their DC offices on what some have called a “skeleton crew.”
“I am frustrated! But not panicked,” another staffer texted BuzzFeed News while on the Hill on Thursday. “Our bosses are expecting us to go into work, increase our chance of exposure, and in doing so are keeping us from our families and parents.”
Some staffers said members are discussing proposals for how the House will proceed with a third coronavirus stimulus vote, which will likely happen next week: a simplified vote where everyone unanimously agrees to pass the legislation without physically appearing in the Capitol, or have all members fly in to debate and vote as usual. Another option was to not recess at all. All of them seem problematic, staffers said.
“You can’t unanimous consent trillions of dollars,” one staffer said. “Even if the House announced new procedures for voting so that they only allowed 10 members in the room at a time — first of all — to expect that no members are going to congregate in the back is just lying to themselves. But even so, all of them touching the same button [to vote], you can spread it that way.”
And, staffers noted, members would have to get on planes to return to DC and then to go back to their districts, with some coming as far as from Washington state and Hawaii.
“The work to come back to do is very very important work. It is critical. It is part of the federal government doing its job to help the country through a crisis. In that same breath, there’s certain ways where there’s not a practice in what we preach,” the staffer said.
House Republican leadership had a call two days ago with the lead members on each committee to get a sense of where they were on remote voting. Republicans came away very against the idea, according to a source familiar with the call.
“[Voting remotely] shows that Congress is scared,” another staffer said when asked why they thought members would object to casting votes from their districts. “It instills fear in the American people. In this moment they are looking to their government officials for comfort. And if we don’t even show up for them, then what are we?”
Some say they are putting their civic duty first, it’s not about morale. “I think it’s more like setting a very historic precedent,” one Democratic staffer told BuzzFeed News while sitting in her office inside the Capitol. “Even when we had 9/11, members were still required to come here and vote and they were all targeted at that time too.”
Staffers on the Senate side were a bit more diplomatic, as their bosses are still in Washington, floating on and off of the Senate floor, negotiating and voting on coronavirus-related legislation.
“The magnitude of the situation has put a strain on everyone but some staff are essential to continue the operation of the government,” said one Senate staffer.
“Honestly I’m not that frustrated right now,” another Senate staffer told BuzzFeed News. “We signed up for the job, understanding there are certain risks here, and only a couple of us need to be here while we’re in session. If I really felt at risk, I am confident my office would accommodate me being at home.”
The same staffer did say she’d be relieved when they do move to full telework, however.
Staffers did complain about the food situation on the Senate side. Capitol dwellers are no longer allowed to use the self-service options, including pouring your own coffee or fountain soda, and the self-service salad bar is closed.
One staffer was also disappointed when BuzzFeed News told her that one local eatery in the Capitol building, Cups & Company, had closed amid COVID-19 concerns.
“I saw the lady in there this am but their door was still locked,” she texted. “I figured they were just opening late or something.”
“I’m devastated,” she added.