As President William Howard Taft prepared to leave the White House, he told his successor Woodrow Wilson, “This is the loneliest place in the world.”
While Taft’s remark referred to the great burdens of his job, it could apply today to Members of the House of Representatives precisely because we are being prevented from doing our job properly by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
If Taft were alive and a Member of the House of Representatives in 2021, he might revise his opinion as he spent time in the empty committee rooms or listened to the rolls of representatives casting votes from afar by proxy. The House remains empty at times when official business is being conducted. Even as the rest of the country lifts restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, representatives meet virtually to do the job they were sent to Washington to do.
On June 10, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a virtual markup of legislation. We debated, offered amendments, and voted over video conference, not in the spacious hearing room designed for the task. The process suffered from the technical glitches, talking over one another, and other irritations that many Americans became too familiar with over the course of the pandemic.
At this point, though, vaccinations have been going on for months. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approves of indoor gatherings of vaccinated people, but apparently this information has not made it to the House majority’s leadership.
I believe we should meet in Washington for hearings, markups, and votes. Members of Congress are more effective when they can interact with each other face to face not only in the formal business of debates and hearings but in the conversations that occur on the side, as we run into each other on the way to the floor to vote or during discussion of a bill in committee. We cannot meet and talk through issues in the same way on a video call with 30 people. Our work suffers as a result.
Therefore, as I have throughout the pandemic unless I had a family commitment, I took part in the hearing from an Energy and Commerce Committee room. One other Member joined for a time, but I otherwise had it to myself. As a sign of the illogic characterizing the way the House is currently run, I nevertheless had to wear a mask in the large empty room or I would have been subject to a fine.
During the same week, the House of Representatives met for a pro forma session, as it does every few days it is not holding votes. These sessions usually last only for a few minutes with the acting Speaker and another Member of Congress present.
At one of the pro forma sessions, I was that other Member of Congress, present in the House chamber to make sure that the session did not become the occasion for passing significant legislation.
The reasoning behind pro forma sessions is legitimate. The Constitution forbids the House and the Senate from adjourning for more than three days without the consent of the other, so each chamber satisfies this requirement by holding a pro forma within this time limit. They can check the power of the presidency by preventing “recess appointments” that evade the Senate’s advice and consent process for nominees.
However, they have also been used to evade legislative accountability. Bills and resolutions can move through the House by a recorded vote, a voice vote, or unanimous consent. Anything moving through the House by unanimous consent could be blocked if a single representative objects.
During a pro forma session with only a few representatives in attendance, a unanimous consent request could move significant legislation with almost no one present. Speaker Pelosi has tried it before. So those of us who believe that Congress should debate and vote on tough issues, not dodge them, have taken turns being on the House floor to object to any unanimous consent request to pass major bills.
These problems can be avoided by a return to regular order. Many people in the country had to show up at their work sites through the pandemic, and many more who worked remotely for a time have returned to their jobs in person. It is time to reopen the House. The public health justification for the steps that keep the House working virtually wears thin.
For questions, concerns, or comments, contact my Abingdon office at (276) 525-1405, my Christiansburg office at (540) 381-5671, or via email at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.