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The coronavirus Congress finds its role model – in Albany

WASHINGTON – As if what you know about the coronavirus isn't bad enough already, consider this: It has had the hidden side effect of turning Washington into Albany.

Well, sort of. Big decisions here in the nation's capital aren't being made by three men in a room; they're being made by three men and one woman.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck with full force in March, four people – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin – have negotiated the following:

• An $8.3 billion package of emergency expenditures largely aimed at bolstering the health care system.

• The $192 billion Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which increased Medicaid funding, made coronavirus testing free, established paid family leave for some employers and otherwise aimed to help low-income Americans.

• The $2 trillion CARES Act, which created huge new emergency loan programs for small businesses, dramatically boosted unemployment benefits, offered at least some aid to hospitals, states and large municipalities and bailed out big industries in the most need of help.

• A $484 billion bill aimed at replenishing the small business loan fund Congress created only a couple of weeks earlier.

So there you have it: deals that will eventually cost the American people nearly $2.7 trillion (plus interest), struck by three legislative leaders and one cabinet secretary. A bunch of policy wonks filled in the details, and Congress overwhelmingly agreed to it all.

To E.J. McMahon, founder and research director of the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, it all seemed achingly familiar. After all, he's long seen three people – the governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader – hammer out budgets every spring.

"You know, it struck me, in talking to some insiders and also reading the reporting, that Congress is indeed becoming more like Albany," McMahon said.

Blame it, at least in part, on the coronavirus – which has, for the most part, kept House members out of Washington for the past month, leaving some rank-and-file lawmakers feeling like they are on the outside looking in.

“I don’t think we have found our footing on how to conduct our oversight role and our legislative role,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, told the Washington Post late last month.

Others say, though, that the leadership-driven, rubber-stamp coronavirus Congress is the undemocratic end result of decades of change.

"This is a symptom of 40 years worth of delegation of power from members of Congress to the leadership's offices," said Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican.

Two strong House speakers of recent decades – one a Republican and one a Democrat – consolidated power at the top, Reed said.

"You know, this is what Newt Gingrich started and Nancy Pelosi perfected," Reed said.

But to hear Rep. Brian Higgins tell it, Congress bent to the will of the strong-willed even decades earlier. He noted how President Lyndon Johnson, long a legislative master, pushed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid through Congress.

The only thing new, Higgins said, is that people are now noticing the obvious.

"Crises like these are very revealing, and what it's revealing is the truth: that Congress is a leadership-driven institution," said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat.

As if to prove it, McConnell brought the 100 members of the Senate back to D.C. last week to confirm some federal judges. He did so not worrying too much about social distancing, given that even in normal times, the Senate often functions as a lone lawmaker talking for the C-SPAN cameras.

Social distancing is a much bigger challenge for the House, though, given that it typically brings 435 lawmakers elbow-to-elbow for votes.

Some lawmakers aren't happy about being stuck hundreds of miles away from the back benches they usually call home. And last Thursday, they did something about it.

The House Problem Solvers Caucus – which Reed co-chairs – held what it called the first-ever virtual House floor debate. The Problem Solvers intended for the event to show there's plenty of bipartisan support for yet another big coronavirus-related bill, this one with much more funding for states and localities.

But the event – which featured beamed-in live speeches from lawmakers superimposed upon a photo of the vacant House floor – seemed to serve a second purpose.

These legislators made clear they are ready to legislate, even if they have to do it virtually.

"It's important that we show all members of Congress that we can get work done and have some semblance of normal order during this crisis," said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Rep. Brad Schneider, an Illinois Democrat, agreed.

"This is an important demonstration that Congress, like so many across the country, can successfully adapt to the new realities of the pandemic and complete our work virtually," Schneider said.

So why doesn't the House just do that? Why doesn't the full House convene online and hold virtual committee hearings and debates and maybe even figure out some way to conduct votes that won't bring 435 people, many of them aging, together in the same room?

You guessed it.

It's because House leaders haven't been able to agree on how to do that.

So when will rank-and-file House members return to D.C.? This week, when one of the four people who will likely negotiate the final version of the next coronavirus bill – Pelosi – presents her proposal for it.

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