It seems the debate in Congress since April has been whether U.S. representatives and senators are, indeed, essential workers.
For more than five weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has all but closed Congress, a longer absence than during the 1918 Spanish flu.
Capitol Hill erupted late last week after the attending physician informed top GOP officials the health office did not have the means to perform instant virus tests on returning lawmakers or staff.
Over the weekend, President Donald Trump himself offered Congress access to 1,000 instant virus tests similar to a system used to screen visitors to the White House.
But lawmakers declined, with Republican and Democratic leaders indicating they were wary of preferential treatment amid a national shortage of tests.
Trump tweeted Monday that Congress was essentially “saying that they are not ‘essential.’”
It sounds like that to us, too.
Why is it people who are classified as essential are showing up at their jobs daily to check out groceries, stock shelves, prepare takeout food, fix automobiles or, even more importantly, treat people who have the coronavirus — but not the people who craft the laws and policies of the United States?
The Senate, to its credit, convened Tuesday for the first time since March, while the House is staying away because of the health risks. That is not to say many representatives were not working. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressed ahead Tuesday with the next coronavirus aid, a sweeping package that is expected to be unveiled soon even as the House stayed closed.
Last month, House Democrats proposed a temporary overhaul of House rules to permit lawmakers to cast votes by proxy for their colleagues, allowing them to go on record without leaving home during the coronavirus outbreak. Republicans pushed back, and the plan was shelved.
The simple truth is that Main Street America is hurting, badly hurting. Just when the country needs Congress to step up and take stronger steps to help people who are out of work and having trouble putting food on the table, representatives have been trying to figure out whether or not to go to their place of business. Even worse, they can’t seem to figure out how to work from home and cast meaningful votes.
The debate that should be on the table in Washington right now is how to help Main Street. Republicans are counting on a reopened economy to reduce the need for more aid.
With five weeks already lost, how much longer should people wait until the economy improves significantly? Most experts are saying it won’t be this year.
In the meantime, it appears we will just have to wait to see whether representatives can figure out how to get to their place of work or how to work from home before we get the answers about helping Main Street.
• Dave Mathews