Last night, after Donald Trump’s head-scratching Oval Office address about the novel coronavirus, the nation’s capital was hit with another piece of disquieting news: a staffer for Washington senator Maria Cantwell had tested positive for the virus. It was hardly the highest-profile new case to emerge yesterday–that would be Tom Hanks or NBA players Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert; take your pick–but it could prove to be the most consequential. Unlike pro athletes, the average member of Congress is quite old–especially senators, nearly half of whom are 65 and up. And their daily routine involves a heavy amount of close, in-person interactions. That all makes them especially at risk for the worst effects of the virus.
You might have expected that to create a clear new sense of urgency in Congress, which was scheduled to go into recess for a week starting Friday. But the early returns were not great. This morning, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed forward with efforts to pass a bill in the House that would, among other things, expand Medicaid funding, require paid sick leave for all workers, and make coronavirus testing free. But in the Senate, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the bill as “an ideological wish list.” His prominent Republican colleague Lamar Alexander even suggested that the Senate wouldn’t vote on the bill until after its recess. “The Senate will act when we come back and we have a clearer idea of what extra steps we need to take,” he told reporters.
A few hours later, McConnell walked that back, announcing that Congress would stay in session. But the fact that it was even a question is a depressing reflection on the federal government’s utter failure to deal decisively with the crisis. The US response lags far behind other countries. Weeks after the first confirmed cases on American soil, and months after it was clear the disease would eventually arrive here, there are so few tests available that we still have no real sense of the number of infections, thanks to a series of baffling missteps by federal agencies.
Ask any expert about what’s needed during a public health crisis, and they’ll almost certainly tell you the same thing: clear, consistent messaging from the people in charge. We’ve been getting something different. That begins with Trump, whose communication has been consistent only in the sense that it is reliably misleading. So far there’s no evidence that Congress, particularly the Republican leadership that takes its cues from Trump, is ready to step into the vacuum.
“The lack of exigency on the part of Congress, what message does it signal?” said Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University. “We have squandered weeks and weeks, to our harm. And some basic measures to help the situation that should have been put into place weeks ago really need to happen now–they needed to happen yesterday.”
Parmet and other public health experts suggested that one of the things that needs to happen most urgently is for Congress to provide real financial support for people who stay home from work. That might sound like a second-order concern, but it’s essential for “social distancing,” the only way of slowing the spread of the virus. People at risk of losing their job or running out of money will have no choice but to keep going out into the world, even if they’re sick. The US is one of the only wealthy nations that doesn’t mandate paid sick leave. (Not helping matters, as Bernie Sanders and his supporters have loudly pointed out, it also lacks a universal health care system.)