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Rethinking Congressional Rules During The Pandemic


We're going to start this hour with the news that the White House and congressional leaders may be close to reaching an agreement on a new wave of coronavirus relief funding. The legislation would replenish the small business loan program that ran out of money last week. The two parties have been arguing over the scope of the bill, with Democrats insisting that more money also needs to go to hospitals and other needs. A vote could come early this week. We'll have more on that in a minute.

But then there is the question of how Congress is conducting its business during this pandemic. The last time the House passed a coronavirus relief package, it was on a simple voice vote to get around the fact that many lawmakers were not in Washington because they were staying at home in their districts. And you might remember that a single representative from Kentucky infuriated members of both parties by forcing a number of lawmakers to return to Washington by insisting that a quorum of legislators be present per House rules.

So the question has become urgent. Do House rules need to be revisited during this crisis? We're going to talk about this now with two members of the House who've been thinking about this. Josh Gottheimer is a Democrat from New Jersey. Mr. Gottheimer, welcome.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And Tom Reed is a Republican of New York. Mr. Reed, welcome.

TOM REED: Oh, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And together, they co-chair the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus on Capitol Hill, and they sent a letter to both House leaders on this matter just recently. Congressmen, thanks so much. So, first of all, what are you hearing about this new coronavirus relief package? Do you think it's going to happen? Mr. Gottheimer first.

GOTTHEIMER: I do. And it has to happen. We've got to get relief to our small businesses. We've got too many that applied and are waiting. And it's essential for our jobs and for our country. But as you know, I'm hoping will be in the package extra relief for our hospitals and hopefully some support on the way for our municipalities and local governments. But the bottom line is it's got to get done. And it must get done this week.

MARTIN: Mr. Reed, Republicans have been very critical of Democrats for insisting on some of those things that Mr. Gottheimer just mentioned, saying that politics shouldn't be a part of this. But, you know, members are advancing ideas that they think are important. So, I mean, how do you reconcile those two ideas?

REED: Well, I think it shows the fundamental problem that we're not legislating by the normal procedures. You've got to get 100% agreement. You've got to get a hundred senators and 435 members of the House to agree. And that's why the paycheck protection program being held up by just the leadership on both sides is objectionable to a lot of our members. I mean, these businesses are waiting for relief, and we all agreed on that. We all voted for that previously. And all we were talking about is adding money to it.

MARTIN: So let's talk now about how Congress is operating during this crisis. I mean, this is the kind of thing that we just don't tend to talk about very often - I mean, those - the processes themselves. But now it's become urgent - at least, you know, in your view. This past week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw her support behind this proposal to allow absent members to vote by proxy.

So that would require, though, that a fellow House member who is present agrees to cast the vote for the person who is absent. What do you two think about that solution? Mr. Gottheimer, you want to go first?

GOTTHEIMER: Sure. Obviously, it's a very good step, being able to actually vote. And if someone can't get there, either because they're - they've got the virus or because of travel restrictions, then that's a way to get our business done. But the broader issue - and you heard us just talk about this - is for many of these things, we can build a quick majority if we had a vote.

So that's why Tom and I and a group of the Problem Solvers Caucus - half-Democrat, half-Republican, 50 of us - have said, listen. Let's figure out a way while this is going on remotely to be able to participate, be able to debate, conduct oversight and vote. Everyone else has adapted in America, and we should be able to adapt, too, so we can get our business done every single day.

MARTIN: Mr. Gottheimer referenced the letter that the two of you sent to House leaders earlier this month as the co-chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus. So, Mr. Reed, why don't you give us one or two of the suggestions that you raised?

REED: Well, we're looking to use technology - you know, use Zoom, use the conference call's ability. And so the technology is out there. But I want to follow up on what Josh just said because this is exactly the problem because what's happened is now the American people get caught up in this failure to modernize Congress.

And who gets hurt in that because the paycheck protection program can't go forward? Because you get millions of Americans, small business owners, that have been promised the relief, and now look what's happened. They've gone through the week, they're going through the weekend.

I mean, I've had an individual actually commit suicide because they lost their family farm because of this partisan divide in Washington, D.C., that these guys are holding people hostage because they're looking for whatever political game they want to play. And it's just offensive because unanimous consent, 100% agreement, is putting real Americans' lives at risk.

MARTIN: But both of your caucuses...

GOTTHEIMER: I couldn't agree more.

MARTIN: But both of your caucuses elected your leaders, right? So what is the holdup? Is there a distrust of the technology? Is there a belief that the technology is not secure enough? What in your view is the holdup in adopting some of these measures that people all over the country are adopting now because they have to?

REED: In my humble opinion, it's the age-old practice of having all the power of legislation be limited in a handful of people's hands as opposed to let the body do its work and then hold the body accountable for that work with open and transparency in the debate. But in the meantime, like I said, who really loses in that? The American small business owner, for example, in the BPP program.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, presumably, you've spoken to others of your colleagues about this since by intention, the problem solvers caucus is equally split between both parties. Mr. Gottheimer, what are your colleagues saying about this? Do you sense a renewed interest in updating some of these procedures?

GOTTHEIMER: I think there's a real interest in that. You know, if we face something like this again, we must be prepared. The question is, will we adapt and be ready? You know, we've asked everyone in America to adapt, right - our schools, you know, our parents, our small businesses, our bigger businesses.

And everyone's figured this out, including in the state of New Jersey. New Jersey's now voting by phone and remotely, and so are a lot of our local farm communities. It's all happening. So there's no reason why we can't do the same. And I think that's a very important thing to understand.

MARTIN: Mr. Reed.

REED: And I would follow up that the energy of all the members to participate in the process is growing and growing - and rightfully so because if you look at the speaker, you look at our leaders, they each have one vote at the end of the day. And we should all have an equal opportunity to have the voices of the people we've been elected to represent to be in that room, to have the ability to debate this in front of the American people rather than waiting.

Because we continue this way, and they delay bringing people back or allowing us to vote from a majority level, you're going to see things that are going to blow your mind, what's coming down the pipeline, if they continue to have it only rest in two to three hands as to who ultimately makes the fate of trillion-dollar decisions for America's future. And that is dangerous.

MARTIN: That is Tom Reed. He's a Republican of New York. We also heard from Josh Gottheimer, who's a Democrat from New Jersey. Together, they are co-chairs of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the house.

Mr. Gottheimer, Mr. Reed, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

GOTTHEIMER: Thank you so much for having me.

REED: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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