Louie Gohmert’s Coronavirus Case Reveals a Dangerous Reality in Congress

Representative Louie Gohmert, a mask-shunning Republican from Texas, might never have known he had the coronavirus had he not had a mandatory rapid test at the White House in line with its strict protocols put in place to protect President Trump.

So when he tested positive this week, prompting alarm and anger on Capitol Hill, his case exposed a dangerous reality that lawmakers, aides and other staff members have quietly fretted over for months: that Congress, which is tasked with shepherding the nation through the pandemic, itself lacks consistent procedures for protecting its members and its work force.

Like everything else in Congress, arriving at a consensus on how to guard against the spread of the virus in the halls of the Capitol has become a partisan affair, leaving leaders unable or unwilling to adhere to a common set of rules. Many conservative Republicans like Mr. Gohmert, taking their cues from Mr. Trump, have refused to wear masks, staffed their offices at near full capacity and freely glad-handed with one another, their colleagues and top administration officials in close quarters to show the country what getting back to work looks like.

Other Republicans and most Democrats, by contrast, have ordered a majority of their aides to work remotely and asked those who do report to the Capitol complex to wear masks and practice social distancing.

“The House by its nature is a hodgepodge, where all 435 offices have their own policies, and Speaker Pelosi doesn’t have the authority to stop dumb members from doing dumb things,” said Brendan Buck, a former senior aide to Nancy Pelosi’s most recent predecessor as speaker, former Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin. But he argued the speaker had failed to set up a reliable system of routine testing.

Mr. Gohmert’s diagnosis — which sent at least four lawmakers into quarantine and dozens more aides, reporters and the attorney general scrambling to get tested — prompted Ms. Pelosi to put in place the strictest restrictions yet late Wednesday. She announced that lawmakers and their staff members would be required to wear masks when on the House floor or moving through House office buildings, warning that failure to do so would be considered a serious breach worthy of removal from the premises.

But just hours later, the Republican-appointed sergeant-at-arms in the Senate, Michael C. Stenger, put out guidance of his own saying that all employees on that side of the Capitol were explicitly exempt from orders by the District of Columbia to wear masks and quarantine when traveling in from high-risk areas around the country.

With reporters and support staff members darting back and forth between the two chambers, often through packed interior hallways, the noncompliance of one chamber could easily undermine the other.

In addition to the 10 or so lawmakers who have tested positive, the virus has spread among the workers who quietly power the Capitol, with 27 Capitol Police employees, 33 contractors working on a construction site and 25 employees of the Architect of the Capitol testing positive and dozens more going into voluntary isolation because of exposure, according to a tally from Republicans on the House Administration Committee.

Leaders in the House and the Senate have repeatedly declined to put in place a campuswide testing program for lawmakers and their aides. In May, Republican aides with the House Administration Committee met with Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force, who offered to connect lawmakers to a Washington-based laboratory that could process up to 6,000 tests a week at no cost to the House. The White House, too, has offered to send rapid testing machines.

Ms. Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, demurred, arguing publicly that members of Congress should not receive special access to testing when supplies were still scarce for the public. Privately, they questioned the feasibility of testing thousands of people a day.

But the news of Mr. Gohmert’s diagnosis — and that he had returned to the Capitol to tell his aides in person of his test results — unleashed a firestorm of terror and indignation across the House as everyone from interns to lawmakers scrambled to try to retrace Mr. Gohmert’s steps.

Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the Administration Committee, urged his colleagues on Thursday to follow the House physician’s recommendations. “Failure to adhere to this guidance is at your own risk,” he wrote in a corresponding memo.

But without any uniform mandates, a patchwork of policies and practices has emerged on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are exempt from workplace safety laws and their employees and interns do not have the benefit of a traditional human resources department. Congressional offices are exceedingly hierarchical, making raising concerns about safety or discomfort exceedingly difficult.

“The real issue here is that Congress is mandating laws for us to all live by and they’re still not taking care of their own people,” said Audrey Henson, the founder of College to Congress, a nonprofit that provides low-income students with the resources to take congressional internships.

In Mr. Gohmert’s office, staff aides were reportedly encouraged to show up in person to set an example for the country.

His office is two doors down from that of Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who has had all but a masked aide or two occasionally working from home since March.

Aides for Representative Clay Higgins, Republican of Louisiana, have been allowed to “exercise their individual preferences,” including wearing a mask or not. Mr. Higgins had been among those pointedly refusing to wear a mask on the House floor, calling them “part of the dehumanization of the children of God.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Higgins bowed to Ms. Pelosi’s new order. “‘Mask’ is not the hill to die on,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Freedom is the hill to die on. Fighting for your freedoms in Congress is more important than my freedom to wear or not wear a mask.”

The work of Congress is done in many cases out of tiny, poorly ventilated offices that have been subdivided and subdivided again so that staff members sit four or six to an office, and only the most senior have a closing door. For the thousands of contractors and support staff members who largely work out of the basements of the Capitol complex, the situation is even more exaggerated and the options for teleworking fewer.

Conditions in the Senate, a smaller body with 100 members spread out on a similar-size campus, have generally been better and mask usage is widespread. But a handful Republican senators have frequently left their faces uncovered when moving through the Capitol and in March, one of them, Rand Paul of Kentucky, forced several of his colleagues into isolation after he tested positive.

Mr. Davis tried to pin the blame back on Democrats in an interview Thursday, insisting that a plan Republicans proposed in May to regularly test lawmakers and congressional staff members could have kept the virus under control and Congress safely at work. He noted that House Democrats had already imposed a number of risk mitigation measures, like social distancing during votes on the House floor.

“I don’t think the one diagnosis yesterday can reflect upon the entire institution like we haven’t made some changes already,” Mr. Davis said. “But the one change we have yet to get done because of Speaker Pelosi’s resistance is the same option that Americans have throughout our communities.”

Ms. Pelosi’s allies vigorously contest that characterization, noting that lawmakers can get tested by the attending physician’s office if they have reason to believe they could have contracted the virus or are showing symptoms.

Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the administration panel, said Republicans’ proposal was simply unworkable. The Abbott rapid testing machines offered by the Trump administration have a high rate of false negatives, and it would take multiple machines running around the clock to regularly test members of the House and a small coterie of aides — not to mention senators or others coming to work every day.

“Stop fooling around. Stop trying to make this some political issue,” Ms. Lofgren said. “It’s not. It’s just a health issue.”

Democrats in May adopted a package of rules changes to allow committees to meet remotely and lawmakers to cast their votes on the floor from afar using a proxy, in addition to other cleaning and social distancing guidelines.

But every Republican but one has outright refused to use the proxy system, and party leaders sued to deem it unconstitutional.

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