Amid mounting frustration with the extent to which the president has been able to frame the discourse about Covid-19 and its consequences, some of the savviest thinkers about politics and governing have been asking, as Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout did recently, “Where is Congress during a deadly pandemic?” Her answer: “They should be in session every day. Remotely.”
Meeting remotely is necessary now, as most members aren’t in Washington. Yet the House, which is controlled by the Democrats and thus is the most likely source of alternative approaches to those advanced by the Republican president, has not yet developed a plan for holding virtual sessions in the way that state legislatures and city councils across the country have begun to do.
So the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) is stepping up to show how it can—and should—be done.
Next Thursday, April 23, the CPC will convene the first in a series of remote congressional hearings to highlight bold and necessary proposals for responding to the pandemic and to the economic crisis that has developed as a result. Thursday’s hearing will consider mass unemployment, with a focus on “Preventing Layoffs: Keeping People Employed Through Worksharing and a National Paycheck Guarantee.”
We think it’s really important to look at ways to address the employment issues where President Trump has been such a dismal failure,” says CPC cochair Mark Pocan. “This is a way to show the American people that we have ideas for what needs to be done, and that there are people in Congress who are on top of this.”
Representative Ro Khanna, the tech-savvy Democrat who represents the Silicon Valley, said late last month that it is “time to bring Congress into the 21st century” with a plan for remote deliberations and voting so that “no member should risk their health and public safety to come to DC.” While dozens of members have now signed on to a letter urging the House Rules Committee to “enact a temporary change to House Rules to allow remote voting by Members of the House during national emergencies, especially the current one involving Covid-19,” the chamber has remained on the sidelines in recent weeks. The CPC is setting an example of how Congress can hold session remotely with so much needing to get done.
Pocan and CPC cochair Pramila Jayapal have since March been advocating for proposals that would have the federal government intervene in a major way to help businesses keep workers on the payroll at a point when unemployment claims are surging to record levels.
Last week, Jayapal introduced the Paycheck Guarantee Act, a plan to provide a three-month federal guarantee for 100 percent of worker salaries of up to $100,000 to ensure employers keep workers on the payroll and continue to provide employer-sponsored benefits. “A federal paycheck guarantee is a real solution that matches the scale of the crisis. Mass unemployment is a policy choice. We can and should choose differently,” says Jayapal. “A federal paycheck guarantee would stanch more layoffs and unemployment, and quickly and reliably deliver relief to workers. Workers would not be forced to apply for unemployment insurance, overwhelm that system and then have to once again find a job. Businesses of all sizes would be able to keep workers on payroll and benefits—and be able to quickly re-open—partially or fully—without having to rehire and retrain their workforce.”
This is the kind of big, bold response that needs a hearing. And Pocan, a cosponsor of the Paycheck Guarantee Act and a leading advocate for providing protections for small businesses and their employees with an expansion of existing state workshare programs, says the CPC will provide it. Organized along the lines of a traditional House hearing, the “Preventing Layoffs” hearing will be chaired by Pocan and Jayapal and feature expert testimony from Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, and Amanda Ballantyne, the director of the Main Street Alliance, a group that advocates for small businesses.
“The president in one of his more recent rambles said that he was thinking about adjourning Congress,” explained Pocan. “That doesn’t make any sense. Article 1 of the Constitution is about Congress. We are a co-equal branch of government. We have to be in the debate. It is incumbent upon us to be putting forward ideas, framing them, discussing them and providing forums where they can be examined and discussed.”
In a call this week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other key players in the House Democratic Caucus, Pocan said, the CPC leaders discussed their plan for the hearing. The response was encouraging, with talk about standing committees looking at ways to conduct business remotely during the shutdown that has kept so many House members far from Washington. “I think that us doing this will show the way for others,” says Pocan. “It’s exciting to think that Congress can start speaking to the American people about real alternatives to Trump’s haphazard approach. We’re ready to show that we have serious plans for giving people stability and bringing our economy back.”