The coronavirus crisis hasn’t derailed Rep. Chris Smith — he’s written six bills while Congress has been on a virus-induced recess, including a demand that airlines refund unused tickets and a trend-setting bill to punish China for mismanaging the virus.
Rep. Joe Neguse, also a prolific legislator, has written nine bills ranging from swatting price gougers to mandating that businesses pay their front-line essential workers a 25% hazard pay boost, with the feds picking up the tab.
Another lawmaker wants to encourage Americans to start victory gardens to bolster their food supply during the outbreak. Still another wants the FBI to report how many gun background checks it did during the crisis. And Rep. Earl Blumenauer wants to make sure pot dealers can get their share of the small business bailout.
Congress may have been gone for six weeks, but that hasn’t stopped the ideas from piling up in Washington — hundreds of bills from lawmakers with suggestions for how to ease the crisis, stockpile for the future, or to punish China for fueling this one.
On Monday, senators will be back in Washington, on the say-so of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who says if grocery stockers, delivery drivers and emergency-room nurses remain on the job, then so should Congress.
House Democrats had initially announced they, too, would return — then recanted, saying the Capitol’s top doctor said it still wasn’t safe to have 435 of them come back and start meeting and voting regularly.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now says she hopes to return next week.
Once in session, neither chamber will look anything close to normal. Access to the floor could be constricted and those who are admitted will maintain distance. And masks are strongly recommended, though they will not become dress code requirements like coat and tie are for men or covered shoulders for women.
The administration had offered to set aside a special cache of tests for Capitol Hill, but Mr. McConnell and Mrs. Pelosi declined.
It’s about the only area of agreement they’ve found recently. Even without being in the same city, they’ve managed to become deeply at odds over what Congress should be doing.
Mrs. Pelosi wants lawmakers to tackle a $500 billion-plus bill to bail out states and localities who have seen their budgets busted as the virus-stricken economy has sapped tax revenue.
Mr. McConnell has been coy about the state and local bailout. He recently said a bill may be possible, but only if it includes the GOP’s “red line” demand of liability protections to allow businesses to reopen without fearing a rash of lawsuits.
During the last six weeks, party leaders have driven the agenda, negotiating bills long-distance.
And while other lawmakers are eager to get back and have their say, they’ve been busy enough.
Mr. Smith, New Jersey Republican, says he’s on the phone from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., holding staff conference calls and working the lines to make sure his state, one of the hardest-hit, gets what it needs in terms of resources and equipment.
One coup was identifying 41 million surgical gloves which customs officials had held at port for months, suspecting they were the product of forced labor. Mr. Smith, a human rights champion, got the gloves released — and it turned out the company hadn’t used forced labor after all.
“I never did more phone calls on one issue than that one,” the congressman told The Washington Times.
As a human rights icon, one of Mr. Smith’s areas of focus is China. So his bill to strip the Chinese government of sovereign immunity, allowing lawsuits to be brought in U.S. courts, is a natural fit.
The bill uses the same tactic Congress took to strip Saudi Arabia of immunity for lawsuits stemming from the 2001 terrorist attacks.
It would apply to any country that misleads the world about a pandemic, and Mr. Smith says that’s important because this won’t be the last one. But China is clearly in the crosshairs.
“Whether or not China would be held accountable with monetary damages, I would hope so, but at least we would begin establishing a record in court getting to the bottom of it,” he said. “When the lying means people in my district, the 4th District, die or lose their jobs, there needs to be an avenue for justice.”
Another of his bills would extend the paycheck protection program, designed to help small businesses keep people on their payroll right now, to include labor unions and chambers of commerce.
He says they were not covered in the original stimulus, likely an inadvertent oversight amid the rush to legislate, and he hopes the next big coronavirus bill will include his legislation as a technical fix.
The China bill in particular could be an area of bipartisan cooperation. Mr. Smith and Mrs. Pelosi have worked on human-rights issues in China before, and he said he has a call in to the Democratic speaker’s office to try to gauge her interest.
But connecting with fellow lawmakers has been one casualty of the long congressional shutdown.
No committee meetings or votes, where all members are gathered at once, means no chance to button-hole fellow members to share ideas of earn signatures for co-sponsors on legislation.
“I get most of my co-sponsors, honestly, by being on the floor, giving somebody a one-pager [bill summary] that explains it, asking them to get back,” Mr. Smith said.
The difference shows up in the numbers.
About 450 bills have been introduced in the weeks since the House broke camp in March, and they average about 11 co-sponsors per bill.
During the same period last year House lawmakers filed about 850 bills, and each averaged 25 co-sponsors.
Senators operate under different rules and have not been able to introduce bills during their extended break from D.C. But they’ve issued plenty of press releases promising what they’ll do.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, announced a bill to cut off federal assistance, such as allowing use of military equipment, to any Hollywood studios that cooperate with China’s censorship demands.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and fellow Democrats say they’ll pursue legislation to federalize the medical supply chain, making Uncle Sam the rationer-in-chief.
Sen. Cory Booker has teamed up with fellow Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal to write the FIRST Act, legislation that would free all illegal immigrants held in detention while awaiting deportation amid a medical national emergency. Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, wrote a response bill, the PANDEMIC Act, that would automatically deport all illegal immigrants during an emergency.
Like most bills, few of the ideas will pass one chamber, much less both and then signed into law. But they form the arena of legislating as lawmakers return.
Mr. Smith is among the GOP’s most prolific bill-writers, but the champion during coronavirus has been Mr. Neguse, a Colorado Democrat with nine pieces of legislation to his name.
His ideas range from mandatory hazard pay for workers kept on the job — something he hopes has momentum because it tracks with President Trump’s musings — to setting a new definition for price gouging.
Mr. Neguse also pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give testing priority to first responders — a move the CDC did make.
“Since the COVID-19 outbreak began we have been focused on working closely everyday with our constituents, state officials, local government leaders, first responders and health care workers to identify areas we can support their efforts and help legislatively address the challenges presented by this public health emergency,” the congressman told The Washington Times in a statement.
His hazard pay bill only has Democrats as co-sponsors right now, but he wrote a bill on wildfire prevention with a Utah Republican, and his bill to earmark $250 billion in assistance for smaller communities has earned more than 150 co-sponsors, including Republicans.
Even ideas with bipartisan support will likely have to wait, though.
The Senate’s immediate schedule this week is votes on a series of nominees slated for confirmation, and Mr. McConnell’s office says the Senate may also take up a renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which saw some of its provisions lapse before Congress’s coronavirus shutdown.
Mr. McConnell’s decision to return on Monday is decidedly unpopular with Democrats, who complained that his chief goal in bringing back the chamber is to made headway on Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a usually circumspect Democrat from West Virginia, lashed out at Mr. McConnell last week, calling the expected votes on judges “shameful.”
“I am eager to go back to Washington to work on the challenges our country faces with COVID-19 and the economy but not for McConnell’s personal agenda,” he said.
Mr. McConnell made no apologies.
“The Senate is a personnel business,” he told Fox News. “We have much work to do with the American people and we think we can do it safely.”