“Our dining room table is now kind of command central,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who has spent the recess holding teleconference after teleconference, including one with Sen. Tina Smith, a fellow Minnesota Democrat, that drew thousands of attendees.
The experience, according to lawmakers and aides, has been more than just replacing Congress’ ritual of in-person meetings with conference calls. It’s a radical shift for a governing body built on face-to-face interactions, particularly for senior members who are accustomed to being surrounded by staff and followed around the Capitol by reporters.
And it’s an enormous challenge, technologically, for an institution that’s largely stuck in the 20th century. Members are still handed pagers after they’re sworn in, and most staff aren’t trained in secure video-conferencing, let alone how to conduct a thousand-person teletown hall.
Rep. Max Rose — a platoon leader in Afghanistan before he came to Congress last year — has turned his home in New York City into a one-man war room amid the epicenter of the national outbreak. On Staten Island alone, where Rose lives, the number of cases soared to 935 on Tuesday.
Over the past week, the freshman Democrat helped secure New York City’s first testing site in his district and pushed the White House and state officials to speed up procedural steps, such as approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
“We are building the plane as we fly it,” Rose said.
Last week, Rose went out and visited the testing site, where he and others have been helping recruit former or retired health care workers to sign up for shifts. He’s also stepped up public outreach, dialing in to a local Fox station as he sought to reassure his district: “Now we’re at war with a virus, not an army,” he told the anchor.
The fight has gotten particularly close to home for several members who have been quarantined after possible exposure. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who ended his quarantine over the weekend, has been taking part in a stream of conference calls local TV appearances and even co-teaching an online class at a local university.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) used a videoconferencing system to appear on CNN while quarantining at home, discussing his failed attempt to get a test from the House physician’s office to learn whether he had the virus. Beyer has shown no symptoms of the virus and will hold a virtual town hall on Tuesday.
It doesn’t all go off without a hitch: On a Friday teleconference call with the Congressional Black Caucus, Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), had to adapt on the fly when she was told other speakers weren’t on the call.
But it’s a particularly important task for first-term lawmakers, who are overseeing resources and communication for their districts as they make their first attempts at reelection — particularly now that the response to the virus is likely to dominate their campaigns.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) took a virtual tour of the Virginia Commonwealth University hospital system and spoke with administrators via video call. Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), a pediatrician, announced a Facebook Live event in which she and her young son will take questions from kids about the coronavirus outbreak. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) hosted a virtual storytime on Instagram in which she and her stepdaughter read “The Story of Coretta Scott King.”
It’s unclear when the House will return to Washington.