Mask rules spark political games, a nasty environment in the House

By Cristina Marcos

The Hill

Rules instituted by Democrats requiring lawmakers to wear masks at the Capitol are being routinely ignored by Republicans, underscoring the scorched-earth environment in the House when it comes to the coronavirus. Republicans and Democrats for much of the pandemic have strongly disagreed over what rules should be instituted to keep the Capitol — and the public at large — safe. And nearly two years after the first cases in the U.S., things are getting worse, not better, when it comes to people following the rules. A number of Republicans have seen it as good politics to push back against Democratic rules on masks.

Two far-right Republicans, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde of Georgia, have been fined at least $148,500 combined for repeatedly defying the House chamber’s mask mandate. The fines have won further attention for Greene and Clyde who have used their refusal to wear masks as a badge of honor. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee this week refused to comply with a request from Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) for all members to get tested for COVID-19 before attending a scheduled briefing on Iran. The House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Michael Turner (Ohio), made a point on Wednesday of announcing at the weekly GOP leadership press conference that he and other members of the panel wouldn’t agree to get tested before the closed-door briefing set for the next day. 

The Capitol complex has its own COVID-19 testing site for lawmakers and staff, who can get PCR test results typically within the same day. Turner didn’t dispute the value of testing, but rather argued that lawmakers shouldn’t get to take advantage of easy access to COVID-19 testing when many Americans have had difficulty finding tests in recent weeks. “The American public does not have this privilege and we will not comply. The Biden administration failed to plan for needed testing for the American people. Schiff believes that he should have a privilege that the average American worker does not. Our members will not comply with Schiff’s request that we submit to COVID testing just to do our job,” Turner said. 

Differences over rules sometimes are less about politics and more about the general fatigue over the virus that has become a part of everyday life. Even amid the highly transmissible omicron variant, many Republicans eschew masks in the Capitol hallways outside the chamber where the House mask mandate is in effect but isn’t enforceable with fines. The fights over COVID-19 precautions are emblematic of the increasingly nasty environment in the House, where the pandemic has driven an already-divided body even further apart. Infuriated Democrats perceive Republicans as unconcerned about potentially getting other people sick, while Republicans are angry over rules that they think are unnecessarily restrictive. 

Democratic leaders upped pandemic precautions for the House upon the chamber’s return to session last week for the first time since the omicron variant began spreading rapidly, including among dozens of lawmakers in the last month alone. Citing guidance from the Capitol physician, Democratic leaders urged all lawmakers and staff to wear more protective KN95 or N95 masks and avoid congregating on the floor during votes. Lawmakers are allowed to remove their masks when recognized to speak during floor debate, however. Most Republicans are complying with the mask rules in the chamber to avoid getting hit with the fines that start at $500 for the first offense and $2,500 for subsequent offenses. But it’s another story the moment they step off the House floor. Many Republican lawmakers and their staff still routinely roam the areas outside the chamber and in nearby House office buildings without masks, despite large signs on the walls reminding everyone of the mask requirement. 

Yet even the threat of fines deducted from their salaries isn’t enough to deter some Republicans from defying the House floor mask requirement. Greene — whose personal account was banned from Twitter for repeatedly promoting misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines — has been fined at least $88,000 for ignoring the House mask mandate 36 times, a figure that’s expected to grow as she continued to go maskless this past week. Clyde, meanwhile, has been fined at least $60,500. Nine other Republicans have been fined at least once: Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa), Bob Good (Va.), Mary Miller (Ill.), Chip Roy (Texas), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Brian Mast (Fla.), Beth Van Duyne (Texas) and Thomas Massie (Ky.). Aside from Miller-Meeks, who has been fined twice, only Greene and Clyde have been willing to repeatedly sacrifice large chunks of their paychecks to protest the mask rules. 

The persistent defiance is frustrating Democrats who have few options for enforcement aside from the fines, since members of Congress have constitutional protections to access the chamber so they can cast votes on behalf of their constituents. Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat, asked the House sergeant-at-arms last week to consider requiring lawmakers who refuse to wear masks to vote from “isolation boxes” in the gallery overlooking the House chamber instead of from the floor alongside their colleagues. “This callous disregard for House rules endangers the health of members of Congress and the professional staff whose physical presence is required to ensure continuity of government,” Clark wrote in a letter to House Sergeant-at-Arms William Walker. 

But Walker openly acknowledged in testimony before members of the House Appropriations Committee that he’s had difficulty enforcing the mask requirement, even when he’s personally told people violating the rules to comply. “I see people — members, staff — without masks. And I’ll walk up to them and I’ll ask them to put the mask on. And some just walk away from me. Some put it on,” Walker said. 

Clark’s office did not respond when asked if it had received a response from Walker. Some Republicans are also resisting pandemic-related mandates when they go off the Capitol campus. The District of Columbia’s government, under Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser, has begun mandating proof of vaccination for people to dine indoors at restaurants. 

Republican Reps. Bob Good (Va.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.), are even forgoing their memberships to the Capitol Hill Club, a popular GOP watering hole steps from the Capitol, in protest. But they won’t have to venture far to find food where there’s no vaccine mandate, since Congress doesn’t have to follow rules set by the city government. A spokesman for the Chief Administrative Officer, which manages support services for the House, confirmed that the cafeterias in House office buildings are not subject to the District of Columbia’s vaccine mandate for indoor dining. There is one pandemic precautionary measure established by Democrats that Republicans have eventually come to embrace: proxy voting. 

After Republicans voted en mass against establishing proxy voting in May 2020, many eventually joined Democrats in using it to cast votes if they were sick with COVID-19 and couldn’t come to the Capitol in person or simply as a scheduling convenience. Even some members of GOP leadership, including Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer (Minn.), have cast votes by proxy. 

Officially, however, GOP leaders insist they’ll get rid of proxy voting and require everyone to show up in person if Republicans take over the House majority next year. “I think the American public, just as we honored those in the health field, grocery store, the truck driver, that they would continue to work, I think they’d expect their leaders to work,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

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