Why it will take an act of Congress for lawmakers to work from home

Lawmakers consider re-writing historical rules to allow them to work from home during...
Lawmakers consider re-writing historical rules to allow them to work from home during coronavirus outbreak (Source: Gray DC)(GRAYDC)
Published: Mar. 23, 2020 at 4:32 PM EDT
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Congress can’t follow public health guidelines and get its work done. An Ohio lawmaker plans to change that.

As lawmakers work to craft public policy to combat coronavirus they’re jeopardizing their own health and risk spreading the invisible killer even further. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky tested positive for the virus this weekend. Utah’s senators came in close contact with him, and are now self-isolating as well.

Four other G.O.P. Senators stepped away as a pre-caution previously, two have returned.

But, it will take an act of Congress to allow lawmakers to work from home.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said the country is counting on Congress during a recent call with the press. "We have to stay here to get this work done," he said.

Failing to act quickly and decisively to contain this coronavirus could cost countless Americans their lives and financial security.

But, many of those still here in Congress are among the most vulnerable Americans and coming in closer contact with others than they should. Those who are absent are leaving their constituents without a voice.

"There should be a way for the congressional branch, the legislative branch to continue to operate, even if we cannot be gathering here in Washington," said Portman.

Legislative staffs are largely working from home. But, lawmakers can’t mail or phone-in their votes.

Portman first suggested a remote-voting option in times of national emergency shortly after 9/11. The idea resurfaced in both chambers earlier this month.

"That is such an interesting idea," said Mark Rom, a political science professor with the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.

We caught up with Rom as he worked from home. He said while technology doesn’t stand in the way like it may have in the past, lawmakers don’t generally vote in favor of breaking from tradition.

"Whether they will be willing and eager to move in that direction, I’m a little bit doubtful about that," he said.

While there is bi-partisan support for the idea – thus far, it’s not getting traction with Democratic leaders in the House, or Republicans in control of the Senate.

But, with absences now directly impacting how Congress responds to the virus – that may change.

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