With the nation continuing to confront a global pandemic, we are all experiencing unprecedented new normals. Social distancing practices recommended by public health experts such as limiting travel, prohibiting the assembly of groups of people, and physically separating from one another pose challenges for all of us, including Congress and the rest of the federal government. In ordinary times, House and Senate members travel frequently between their home states and Washington. They gather in large groups to conduct legislative business in committees and on the floor of their respective legislative chambers. And they visit with their constituents in face-to-face meetings whether back home or in the nation’s capital.
The US Capitol complex closed to most public visitors on March 12. While congressional staff have access to the Capitol buildings, the vast majority are now working remotely. Congressional hearing rooms and hallways normally packed with visitors are now silent and largely empty. District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser first issued stay at home orders in late March, and while those orders were set to expire on May 15, the DC shelter in place directive was extended as COVID-19 through June 8.1
For the last two months, Members of Congress have made limited trips to Washington to conduct legislative business on primarily COVID-19 related matters. Four major bills have been passed and signed into law by President Trump including the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, legislation providing initial funding for the federal government response to the virus outbreak; the Families First Coronavirus Response Act; legislation providing coronavirus testing, 14-days of paid leave for workers affected by the pandemic and increased funding for nutrition programs; the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, economic relief legislation providing direct payments to individuals, loans to major industries, and loans for small business; and the Paycheck Protection Program and Healthcare Enhancement Act, legislation providing additional small business loan money and funding for hospitals. Of note, the small business loan programs include potential relief options for agribusiness.
The Senate has scheduled some in-person and virtual committee activities for early May. The Senate is also resuming efforts to vote on Trump Administration and judicial nominees this month. The House is exploring options for establishing proxy voting for floor and committee activity as well as how to begin holding virtual hearings and roundtables with Administration officials and others.
As Congress works on the next round of COVID-19 legislation this month, some of the emerging issues for consideration include expansion of USDA’s food assistance efforts, additional funding for health care, additional funding for small business relief through the Paycheck Protection Program; aid for state and local governments; assistance for individuals in the form of further direct stimulus payments, rental assistance, and other mechanisms; and liability protections for businesses as the crisis continues and as states begin to reopen their economies. While the previous aid packages have moved relatively quickly with differences between political parties being resolved prior to floor passage in both the House and Senate, it is expected that the next round of relief legislation will require more time and debate over complicated issues such as liability reform and certain spending initiatives. The House is expected to consider a new proposal as early as the week of May 11.
As Congress expands its ability to conduct hearings in the coming weeks they are likely to further discuss President Trump’s Executive Order on utilization of the Defense Production Act to address food chain supply issues and Member concerns about food chain workforce safety. Members are also interested in shaping USDA programs and aid for farmers.
Over the course of the summer months Congress will work towards completing the annual government spending measures and other must-pass bills as well as continued COVID-19 matters. It is anticipated that Congress will begin to shift from emergency aid packages to recovery proposals which could include large-scale infrastructure programs as the nation rebuilds our economy in the wake of the pandemic.