While Tennessee and Georgia, along with some 29 other states, are in the throes of reopening even hands-on businesses such as barber shops and salons, Congress instead is listening to medical experts.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, announced on Tuesday that on the advice of the House physician, they would not reconvene the House in Washington next week.
Rather, while the Senate's 100 members and their staffs return to the Capitol, the House's 435 members and their staffs will continue their video- and phone-conferencing. They will model social distancing, rather than government's usual not-so-social-distanced huddling on the chamber floors.
The whole idea of Congress working on Zoom, a video conferencing phone and computer application, got an explainer and took a humorous turn last week on "Late Night with Seth Meyers," when the host asked California Rep. Katie Porter if the Founding Fathers would be "very anti-Zoom."
Porter, an attorney and law professor, said that given the health crisis and the plethora of technology that exists, "having a Zoom meeting would satisfy the Founding Fathers' idea of "assembling Congress" much more so than allowing Congress to become a sort of four-member body composed of Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
She pointed out that Zoom and other technology allow the full diversity of Congress to interact, and therefore it allows the full diversity of Americans to be represented.
But change is hard. And teaching new tricks to old dogs is as true in Congress as in the backyard. The average age of House members at the beginning of the 116th Congress was 57.6 years. Senators have an average age of 62.9 years. The oldest members in both chambers are 86. In fact, around 15% of the House and fully a quarter of the Senate were 70 or older in March.
That's where things got funny on "Late Night."
Porter, 46, lamented that aging members of Congress who are trying to adapt need training to use the new technology. And she offered some quick advice:
"If you still have a flip phone, and you're a member of Congress, it's time you trade that model up," she said.
When Meyers guffawed, she added: "You laugh as if that's like, a small caucus. I mean — the flip phone caucus has double-digit membership. And it's a bipartisan caucus, I want to add."
Meyers, of course, egged her on, asking how good her colleagues would be at "muting or unmuting themselves on Zoom."
"I would estimate right around 5 to 10 percent of everything we do is related to unmuting and what button should be pressed," she said with a smile.
Lightheartedness aside, we are living in a serious and risky period, and it's time for Congress to lead — by going remote.
Most of our nation's seasoned and reasoned politicians are older and therefore vulnerable to the coronavirus — for which there is no treatment or cure, despite the frenzied reopenings of 31 states where Republican governors reign and fear the retaliation of a president infuriated by the tanking of the economy and his polls numbers.
Foreignpolicy.com made the case for our Congress — and Senate — to go remote more than a month ago — on March 20. Even for votes.
"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that roughly a third of all observed cases of COVID-19 in seniors resulted in hospitalization. The case fatality rate for those older than 65 is estimated at between 3 and 11 percent from the data so far. Dip into the 85-plus range — which includes four senators — and it's 10 to 27%. Hospitalization rates also soar with age. Add onto that that the virus is killing twice as many men as women, and the picture looks even uglier. There are roughly three times as many men as women in both the House and the Senate. At least two members of Congress have already tested positive for the novel coronavirus."
The House of Representatives is right to do what it can to limit the risk to our older lawmakers and their staffs. The Senate should do the same. And yes, devise a way to vote remotely, as well. City councils and county commissions are doing it. Why can't Congress? Stop bringing members into both chambers — physically at least.
No, government won't stop. Members can — in fact, already are, through their committees — debate and reach consensus remotely.
Congress should be an example, not an exception, when it comes to social distancing — something which all experts and almost all of those governors reopening their states say must be with us for weeks and even months to come.
Reps. Porter, Eric Swalwell and Van Taylor proposed this solution in mid-March. Pelosi, though first cool to the idea, now seems to have heard it loud and clear.
Senate Leader McConnell? Not so much. In fact, Republicans pressured Democrats to withdraw a proposed proxy-vote rule change, arguing that lawmakers should still be voting in person during the pandemic. Perhaps that's to be expected. The only change McConnell is ever interested in is making all things all red all the time.
Yes, aging leaders: Trade up those flip phones, do the same kind of research on remote technology that you like to brag about being good at on things like health care and the economy, and bring your wisdom into the 21st century — at least temporarily. Get your staffs out of the halls of the Capitol and keep them and us safe, too.
After all, even the Founding Fathers embraced change. Otherwise, we'd still be colonies.