News & Politics

Congress Practices Social Distancing in Passing COVID-19 Stimulus, as Members Spill Out Into the Gallery

Twitter screenshot.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill on Friday by voice vote. Congressmen flew in from across the country to establish a quorum (at least half of the 435 House members) and pass the bill. Many expressed anger at Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who threatened to demand a roll call vote. He did force Congress to reach a quorum. Representatives had to engage in various forms of social distancing, leading to a very unusual voting pattern.

“Wow! Members are now taking up spots in the public gallery above the actual House floor. Staff are opening more doors for more members to go to the gallery above. Looks as if they’ll socially distance that way. And establish a quorum, defeating Massie,” Washington Post reporter Paul Kane tweeted. “There will be more than 216 members in the chamber – [spread] out on floor and above in galleries. (Those were closed to public 2 weeks ago.) With a quorum, Massie needs 1/5 of those present to back up his call for a vote. It will be denied. Suffice to say, I’ve never seen this.”

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) shared a photo from the public House Gallery, calling the scene “surreal.”

 

“Members stood and applauded from their social distancing-spaced seats on House floor and galleries above after the COVID-19 economic aid bill passed by voice vote,” CSPAN Capitol Hill Producer Craig Caplan tweeted.

Representatives were required to use hand sanitizer.

It seems so many members of Congress were planning to skip out on the vote that a quorum was very much in doubt until Thursday night when it became clear Massie might require proof of a quorum. “US House members scrambled to get back to DC to vote on the $2T coronavirus aid package. For fear that one member (Rep. Thomas Massie R-KY) will object to a voice vote and demand a roll call vote. Lawmakers were forced to return on last minute red eyes, etc,” Nexstar Media Correspondent Alexandra Limon reported.

This situation led to a great deal of arguably misplaced outrage at Massie. “Looks like a third rate Grandstander named [Thomas Massie], a Congressman from, unfortunately, a truly GREAT State, Kentucky, wants to vote against the new Save Our Workers Bill in Congress. He just wants the publicity. He can’t stop it, only delay, which is both dangerous… & costly,” President Donald Trump tweeted. “Workers & small businesses need money now in order to survive. Virus wasn’t their fault. It is ‘HELL’ dealing with the Dems, had to give up some stupid things in order to get the ‘big picture’ done. 90% GREAT! WIN BACK HOUSE, but throw Massie out of Republican Party!”

Former Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State John Kerry retweeted Trump’s message. “Breaking news: Congressman Massie has tested positive for being an a**hole. He must be quarantined to prevent the spread of his massive stupidity. He’s given new meaning to the term [Masshole],” Kerry tweeted. “(Finally, something the president and I can agree on!)”

Massie defended himself in a Twitter thread.

“I swore an oath to uphold the constitution, and I take that oath seriously. In a few moments I will request a vote on the CARES Act which means members of Congress will vote on it by pushing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘present,'” he began. “The Constitution requires that a quorum of members be present to conduct business in the House. Right now, millions of essential, working-class Americans are still required to go to work during this pandemic such as manufacturing line workers, healthcare professionals, pilots, grocery clerks, cooks/chefs, delivery drivers, auto mechanics, and janitors (to name just a few). Is it too much to ask that the House do its job, just like the Senate did?”

“I am not delaying the bill like Nancy Pelosi did last week. The bill that was worked on in the Senate late last week was much better before Speaker Pelosi showed up to destroy it and add days and days to the process,” Massie clarified. He slammed the current version of the bill for directing $25 million to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “That $25 million, for example, should go directly to purchasing test kits,” he declared.

Massie accused both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) of “working together to block a recorded vote just to insulate members of Congress from ACCOUNTABILITY. Biggest spending bill in the history of mankind, and no recorded vote?”

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) defended Massie as “one of the most principled men in Congress & loves his country. He is defending the Constitution today by requiring a quorum. There’s nothing 3rd rate about that, [President Trump]. I may miss vote if he forces roll call (flights) but it will pass. Back off.”

Massie is correct about the key differences between his push for accountability and the Senate Democrats blocking the bill on Sunday and Monday while House Democrats pushed their Christmas wish-list proposal. The anger against Massie is misplaced, while the outrage over Democrats’ obstruction is warranted.

President Trump is expected to sign the bill as soon as possible.

Legislatures in Ohio and Minnesota have also engaged in social distancing procedures while voting amid the coronavirus crisis.

As for the bill itself, its central measures involve cash payments and hundreds of billions in bailouts to a wide range of companies. Under the plan, individuals making up to $75,000 per year are expected to receive checks for $1,200. Couples making up to $150,000 would receive $2,400, with an additional $500 per child. The payments would decrease for those making more. The bailouts include $350 billion for small businesses, $500 billion for corporations hurt by the outbreak — especially airlines and cruise lines — and about $150 billion for state and local governments. Another $100 billion will go to assist hospitals.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.