Will the ‘congressional buzz’ return to Capitol Hill when the pandemic is over?

Will the ‘congressional buzz’ return to Capitol Hill when the pandemic is over?

It’s been nearly a year of hybrid hearings. Even Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., posing questions to Acting Assistant Defense Secretary Christopher Maier during a House Armed Services Committee hearing – while driving.

It’s been 11 months of “remote” or “proxy” voting in the House. Members phoning in their votes, literally, to a designee on the floor, and bequeathing them their yea, nay or “present.”

No congressional tours in more than a year.

Few if any “outsiders” or lobbyists surfacing on Capitol Hill for meetings.

Virtually no handshakes.

The pandemic inflicted a toll on Congress – punctuated by the Jan. 6 riot.

No one is sure if the Congress they knew in the early days of March, 2020, will ever completely return.

That said, some Republicans are starting to get itchy about when congressional operations will return to “normal.”

Whatever that is.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., recently pressed House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., about this during their nearly weekly colloquy on the House floor.

“There is a strong desire to get back to a regular floor schedule here on the floor,” intoned Scalise. “Can we get back to a regular floor operating schedule where we can meet his colleagues in person?”

Hoyer said he’d like to.

“I would think and hope we could get 100% of members and make sure that our staff is vaccinated as well,” replied Hoyer. “The sooner we do that, the sooner I think we can accomplish what the gentleman wants to accomplish.”

As we often write in this space, Congress is a microcosm of American society. The same frustrations that vex every corner of American life about the pandemic and a “return to normal” also plays out under the Capitol Dome.

“You’ve had the vaccine and you’re wearing two masks, isn’t that theater?” asked Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., of Dr. Anthony Fauci at a March hearing on the pandemic.

“Let me just state for the record that masks are not theater. Masks are protective,” responded Fauci.

“They are theater,” shot back Paul, who hasn’t worn a mask since testing positive early in the pandemic a year ago. “If you have immunity, you are wearing a mask to give comfort to others. You’re not wearing a mask because of any science.”

“I totally disagree with you,” said Fauci.

Vaccines are soaring. But health officials are worried about long-term concerns.

It was enough for Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to recently forecast “impending doom.”

Hoyer says Capitol health officials are concerned about relaxing congressional health protocols and then having to dial up restrictions again later.

That said, there are a few small signs of quasi-normalcy at the Capitol.

More aides in the offices. Hoyer recently shortened the amount of voting time on the House floor. Votes were stretched out over a longer period so all members wouldn’t rush to the chamber at the same time. President Biden will speak to a Joint Session of Congress on April 28 – albeit to a much smaller crowd than a typical address of that nature.

The word “Congress” means “coming together.” Congress hasn’t come together a lot over the past year. The remote hearings and remote voting add up. Many freshman members have never even met their colleagues. There haven’t been the usual “freshman bonding” sessions over coffee in Longworth or running into one another while running dry-cleaning errands on Capitol Hill. Besides, members may not even recognize one another because of social distancing and masks.

Plus, Congress has figured out how to conduct remote press conferences and hearings. Everything won’t go online. But there’s that microcosm again. If businesses found they can conduct work remotely, Congress did too. Moreover, Congress and the federal government were always at the forefront of telework. Lawmakers and their aides in Washington were always talking to and emailing with another cohort of aides and even constituents back in the district or state. The pandemic just solidified some of that interaction.

So what does that mean for the future of Congress and members working with one another?

“That is going to be much more difficult,” said Steve Livengood, a longtime congressional observer and chief guide of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. “The dichotomy on the internet of people not talking to each other and staying in their own little world is going to get worse with this.”

Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., says lawmakers may not share the same political beliefs. But not encountering one another in person is a hindrance.

“You have less of a feel for what really are the issues that are on people’s mind and then less of an ability to understand where your colleagues are coming from,” said Pomeroy.

The House and Senate schedules have always featured “fly-in” or “getaway” days. That’s where little happens until the later afternoon on Capitol Hill if members arrive for the week on a “fly-in” day. And things may be quiet on a Friday if lawmakers cut down on Thursday. Some staffers are physically scarce during congressional recesses and those fly-in or getaway days. But those aides are always just a phone call or email away. Telework in Congress – and frankly all of Washington – may increase.

Lobbyists now brag about the speed at which they can set up a call with aides or a member and conduct their business, say from Florida or Montana. They don’t have to pile into a cab from K Street in downtown Washington. They can skip navigating the tunnels between the Longworth and Rayburn House Office Buildings. They get a lot more done with more efficiency.

Pomeroy wonders if the congressional buzz will ever return.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be quite the way it has been,” observed Pomeroy. “The intense activity of school kids coming in. Fly-ins of various constituent groups. Some of them wearing colored T-shirts to identify their cause. Others great big buttons. Everyone, up and down the hall. It has a frenetic but intensely stimulating quality. And I don’t think it’s going to be quite the same anymore.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn’t respond directly to a question from Fox recently if some vestiges of the pandemic — like remote hearings and proxy voting — could carry over once coronavirus subsides.

“COVID is the villain here,” said Pelosi. “It’s no use talking about unless people are willing to get vaccinated.”

But the pandemic upended every quarter of American life.

Why fight the traffic when Amazon and Drizly can come to your doorstep?

The same with Congress.

More people will likely return to Capitol Hill eventually. Some aides have toiled in various offices practically since the pandemic began. The workforce has been more scattered in others. Visits by school groups and tours are a ways off. The same with packed hearing rooms.

After all, interested parties discovered they can pay closer attention to a hearing on a live TV feed than actually visiting Capitol Hill.

We’re now into year two of this. And no one knows if the congressional buzz will ever return.