The House of Democracy falls silent
WASHINGTON -- I went to the House to hear the noise of democracy. It might be my last chance. Amid the pandemic, members met for a day and rewrote the rules of American politics, perhaps for good.
Within the Capitol walls, the marble halls were hushed. The plush Speaker's Lobby, where we do press interviews under chandeliers, was dark. That place, often teeming with life, stories and free speech, is a lost paradise for now.
What a change was coming round the corner. That day, the House of Representatives voted to make remote voting part of the government's "new normal."
"Acting at long last to move into the 21st century," Rep. Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat, told me. "We're in an altered reality." His father and uncle served in the House and Senate for decades.
In 2020, he added, the cozy spaces of the Capitol make staying apart difficult.
Democrats and Republicans clashed on the historic rule change. In debate, Republicans argued that actual "assembly" is part of a lawmaker's job.
"Congress meeting together" is essential, even in a public health crisis, Arkansas Republican Bruce Westerman said in an interview. Besides voting, he said, members need to be present for hearings and dialogue across the aisle.
That was the way of the world, ever since Congress first met in Philadelphia 230 years ago. Until last Friday, May 15. And I must admit, it's sad to see a great body politic shed its heartbeat: voting in the chamber.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., an old-school politician, vigorously resisted virtual voting. For some, it's something sacred, members gathering in person to vote.
But the pressure on Pelosi from her Democratic caucus alarmed at COVID-19 contagion was too great. She gave way. It's her house, but it was not a happy day for her.
Call me old-school. Democracy is not best on Zoom. Across the country, locked at home, we all know its distancing effect.
The best show in town is the hurly-burly, the side whispers, the nooks and crannies of the characters in Congress. It's not called political theater for nothing.
Then I witnessed the floor where Congress conducts the nation's business. My heart sank at the sight. Members wearing masks killed the buzz. They looked like stagecoach robbers. Keeping their distance and waiting patiently to speak run contrary to their nature.
Politics is a contact sport, at home and here. Handshakes, hugs and selfies give these extreme extroverts energy. They love to engage.
By contrast, these men and women looked strained. The vibe felt funereal.
To color the missing scene, scores of conversations babble like a brook, in a heaving mass, forming a magnificent human sea.
The "people's House" is the nearest, clearest reflection of the nation's diversity. The Speaker sits at the head of the House. Women, blacks, Latinos and Asians are seen and heard in numbers.
The House is like the city, the Senate like the country.
Outside the sun-dappled Capitol, the scene was more upbeat. Members came to and from the House floor, up and down the grand steps. Some sported new beards, the quarantine look.
"I like being back together, like a school reunion," Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said. "There's not one that I don't like."
In a fractious assembly of 435 House members, with some bad apples, that sounded fresh. Perhaps that spirit comes from togetherness, through sweet and bitter times.
The essence of politics is give-and-take, reaching compromise in the two-party system with conflicts cheek by jowl. That's what tradition says.
The truth is this House is so divided members seldom cross partisan lines. This vote was no different: 217-189. Majority Democrats "won" the day.
The Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., outlined the changes. Committees may meet remotely. Members may designate a proxy to cast their floor votes, a step to avoid travel and spread of the coronavirus.
A Texas congressman made light of the moment in House history: "I'm a good-looking guy; you just can't tell." True, there was no telling who the silver-haired man was under the mask.
Yet something shall be lost in silence.
Jamie Stiehm can be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate, Inc.