As Covid-19 Spreads, Why Does Congress Risk Meeting in Person?

Face-to face meetings are a long tradition, and changes have always been a hard sell.

The U.S. Senate reconvened on May 4, and the House could soon follow. With millions working remotely, schools holding classes online and state legislatures in virtual meetings, why does Congress risk meeting in person?

For more than 200 years, Congressional lawmakers have depended on face-to-face deliberation, deal-making and arm twisting. Changing that tradition has always been a hard sell. After the 9/11 attacks, an “e-Congress” proposal was put forward. It never got off the ground.

“Even the physical destruction of the Capitol, as horrible as that would be, would not be justification for remote voting because… the members who make up the Congress could still meet in one location,” a congressman at that time.

An image from RetroReport
The entrance to a former government relocation facility, also know as “the bunker,” at Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. (Getty Images)

During the Cold War, a secret nuclear bunker was built in West Virginia, where Congress could meet in person if catastrophe struck.

At times of past health threats, like the 1918 flu pandemic, members of the House met in person. When anthrax spores were found in the halls of Congress in 2001, the House shut down, but the Senate remained in session, with lawmakers meeting in alternative spaces.

Meeting in person is so important to Congress that terminally ill senators have had to make their way to Washington to cast decisive votes, as John McCain did in 2017, and Ted Kennedy did in 2008.

In recent weeks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she supports proxy voting. But younger members like Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat, have called for remote voting. Will Covid-19 be the crisis that finally brings change? Stay tuned.

This article was adapted from a Twitter thread that was created with support from a Brown Institute for Media Innovation grant recognizing the need for accurate information about the Covid-19 virus. Learn something new from history: Subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.