Two members of Congress have tested positive for the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. It’s scary news for them and their families.
But with all due respect to Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican from Florida, and Ben McAdams, Democrat from Utah, the issue is not them. Rather, the issue is preserving the very continuity of government.
This is also an issue that could haunt each and every state, the District of Columbia and all five of the territories. Then there are the counties, cities and other local governments. Think sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, judges, mayors, election supervisors and drain commissioners in Michigan or prothonotaries in Pennsylvania. Literally thousands of functionaries you have never heard of before.
The federal government and many, if not most, states, have contingency plans for the continuity of government. However, these plans were drawn up to address either the risks faced during the Cold War — namely the potential for a nuclear strike by the former Soviet Union — or the realities of terrorism in the post-9/11 world. Think ABC’s TV drama “Designated Survivor.”
As one colleague bluntly opined, “Senators are going to drop dead because of this.”
That sounds hysterical until you consider the average age of a member of the upper house of Congress is 61, according to 2018 data. For both houses, the average is just under 59. This means the average representative or senator is barely outside the highest-risk category, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is adults aged 65 and older.
The worst-case scenario is a constitutional crisis in the midst of a deeply charged and highly partisan presidential election in which offices up-and-down the ballot are also up for grabs. Arguably, this is unlike anything the Union has ever seen before. Just look at Ohio, which canceled its primary election even though no elections were ever canceled during the Civil War.
President Trump is 73. His presumptive Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is 77. Vice President Mike Pence will be 61 before November’s election. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who turns 80 this month, and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the 86-year-old Senate president pro tempore, are second and third, respectively, in the presidential line of succession. Beyond them, a majority of cabinet secretaries eligible to succeed to the presidency qualify for a senior coffee discount at McDonald’s.
Let’s face it. Countless members of Congress — to say nothing of congressional staff — have been exposed to the coronavirus. Surely, this includes those in the presidential line of succession, even if they are asymptomatic.
By now, the Secret Service, in conjunction with the U.S. Capitol Police, is perfectly justified to deliberately separate principals in the line of succession from each other. Failure to do so would be reckless.
Then again, this is the same Secret Service that irresponsibly allowed the president, vice president, several secretaries and the then-White House chief of staff to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference alongside foreign attendees from South Korea and Japan at a time when Asia was on the front lines of the pandemic. (Several representatives and senators ended up self-quarantining after one CPAC attendee tested positive for the COVID-19.)
The coronavirus presents the American republic with a truly epic quandary.
Beyond ensuring the continuity of government at numerous levels, it is impossible to see just how incumbents and their challengers can effectively campaign for election in this era of social distancing.
Sure, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden can take advantage of modern technology, but what about the down-ballot races, be they for Congress or state legislatures? After all, these are the kind of campaigns that depend upon direct voter contact, particularly at doorsteps.
• Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.