The U.S. Capitol Building. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo
The revelation Wednesday that Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, a renegade lawmaker known for stalking the halls of Congress without a mask, tested positive for Covid-19 has unleashed a fusillade of anger on Capitol Hill — a sudden release of built-up tension over how the institution has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic within the confines of its own workplace.
For months, the leaders of Congress have allowed lawmakers to enter the Capitol without being screened for the deadly virus, rejecting an offer from the White House to provide rapid testing while trusting that the thousands who work across the massive complex of offices, meeting rooms and hallways will behave responsibly.
Now, legislative aides, chiefs of staff, press assistants, members of Congress, career workers and maintenance men and women are venting their fury with an institution that does not have uniform rules or masking requirements, does not mandate testing, is run with minimal oversight and must contend with a gaggle of lawmakers who doubt scientists and hold themselves out as experts on everything from disease hygiene to pharmacology.
Congress is often buffeted by waves of popular discontent from voters, but what’s happened in recent days has the makings of a historical anomaly: The backlash is coming from the anonymous staff and members who make the place run day to day but are typically accustomed to being told to know their place and accepting that without complaint.
In a nation on edge — and with workplace culture undergoing a generational shift — Congress is now getting a small taste of the same type of internal turbulence that can rock the leaders of The New York Times over an offending op-ed or superintendents of local school systems whose teachers are worried about whether it’s safe to return to the classroom.
“There is a general fear that saying anything critical of the current office policy — or lack of policy — will lead to retaliation,” said an aide to a Republican lawmaker who had been infected, one of a slew of staffers who spoke to POLITICO about their anxiety working in the Capitol.
Other lawmakers have come down with Covid-19. But in many ways, Gohmert’s diagnosis has become a tipping point for a sprawling complex where hundreds of people stream in and out daily, with little institutional guidance.
Hours after Gohmert tested positive — the second case among GOP lawmakers in three weeks — Speaker Nancy Pelosi swiftly implemented a mask mandate for House office buildings and the chamber itself. House Republican leaders recirculated a memo to stress guidance from the Capitol physician, such as limiting or rotating staff, encouraging masks, and implementing home temperature checks.
“The reporting on this situation has led to other reports suggesting House staff reporting unsafe work conditions,” the GOP memo, obtained by POLITICO reads.
Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, also delivered a brief presentation on office safety at a private GOP Conference meeting on Thursday.
“Follow OAP and AOC guidance. Take advantage of supplies and thermometers every office can get at no cost to MRA. And lastly, don’t be stupid and become the news story of the day,” Davis said afterward, recalling his message to his fellow Republicans.
Reporters’ inboxes have exploded with complaints and tales of lax safety measures, careless bosses and a widespread feeling that their health was viewed as expendable.
Many described feeling uncomfortable taking the very kinds of health steps recommended by public health experts, and feeling pressured to report to work in person despite the risks. Multiple aides said it was common to mock those wearing masks, or brush off concerns among staff members with specific health issues.
Others recalled seeing aides avoid taking elevator rides with certain members out of fear of contracting the virus — an almost unheard-of reversal of the usual dynamics of power in a place teeming with ambition and hierarchy.
“Our office has been required to be fully staffed since session resumed at the end of June (including an intern),” a scheduler for a House Republican member said. “While mask use isn’t banned, it’s also not encouraged, and has been derided on several occasions by the [chief of staff] and the member.”
Another aide to a House GOP member told of how staff were allowed to work from home for several days when an office colleague was thought to have been exposed. “Even then,” this person said, “many of my colleagues kept working in the office. We were told to report to work as normal even before the test came back negative because the results were taking too long. I was left feeling guilty for teleworking even though I have an underlying health condition.”
An administrative staffer who often visits multiple offices estimated that mask wearing was “nearly universal in Democratic offices” but was “probably under 50 percent” among Republicans.
Masking has become a “political minefield” that creates awkward encounters on occasion, this person recounted: “[S]ome GOP offices ask why you are wearing a mask, which puts our staff in an awkward position — do you say because of the pandemic and risk the office taking that as a political stand? Do you take it off to make them feel better?”
Staffers with limited recourse
Since the House began voting regularly again this summer, dozens, if not hundreds, of offices have reopened in some capacity, many with a skeleton crew but others — particularly GOP members — that have required nearly the entire staff to return to work in person.
And the return of hundreds of staffers has resurfaced a decades-old problem for the Capitol: More than 25 years after the Congressional Accountability Act passed in an attempt to reform the culture on Capitol Hill, it’s still an often brutal, unforgiving place to work.
Part of the problem is the scattershot human resources system spread across the Capitol complex. There is no centralized HR department — each of the 535 lawmakers and senators is his or her own employer, with their own set of office policies and protocols.
Staffers who may be uncomfortable with what’s happening in an office sometimes have limited recourse. For example, if a staffer is uncomfortable with the mask policies in an office, that person can reach out to the Office of Employee Advocacy — which provides free legal counsel to House staffers — or the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.
But there isn’t some centralized database tracking staffer complaints or concerns, just like there isn’t a singular database to track potential coronavirus infections among the more than 20,000 workers who inhabit the Capitol complex, thousands of staffers and hundreds of lawmakers.
At least 86 Capitol workers have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a House aide familiar with the data. That includes 25 Architect of the Capitol employees, 28 Capitol police officers and 33 people working on the renovation of the Cannon building. But reporting is voluntary and doesn’t include data for House staffers or lawmakers who have tested positive.
Other aides note that overall, there appear to be relatively few coronavirus cases on Capitol Hill, suggesting many offices are indeed following public health guidelines.
Despite the swift move to mandate masks in the House earlier this week, Democratic aides say it’s unlikely Congress will start requiring testing for members, despite calls by some Republicans to do so. Republicans, those Democratic aides say, aren’t being fully truthful about the logistics of implementing a regular testing regime for hundreds of lawmakers and the Capitol staff and aides who would also need to be tested.
Instead, Democrats think the best solution is to fully enforce current policies, including the new mask mandate. If a member refuses to wear a mask on the House floor or in the connected office buildings and brushes off several warnings to do so, it is much more likely he or she will be escorted from the area until complying, according to Democratic aides familiar with the policy.
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged people to wear masks, though he remains skeptical about the need to require them. Asked about the idea recently by Judy Woodruff of PBS, he said the Senate had experienced “good compliance” without a mandate. Pressed further, he said, “It appears not to be necessary since everybody seems to be doing it.”
Jake Sherman, Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.