WASHINGTON – Like many Americans, Rep. Russ Fulcher is sick and tired of Zoom.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the 435 members of the House of Representatives routinely crowded into hearing rooms to debate policy along with aides, witnesses and members of the public. All that changed last April, when the House’s Democratic majority unveiled new rules that let members work and even cast votes remotely, mirroring the work-from-home revolution much of the country has undergone.
The House authorized remote work last May, with zero GOP votes, with the stated goal of stopping the spread of the virus. But Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, saw a more cynical motive.
“It’s designed to keep us apart, and when you’re apart then you are less likely to be tempted to compromise,” Fulcher said. “It’s basically congressional segregation. If you can keep people separated, you can lock down your votes easier that way.”
The second-term congressman said the lack of in-person interaction has concentrated power among the two parties’ leaders, making it harder for rank-and-file lawmakers to have an impact on legislation or build cross-party relationships that could break partisan gridlock.
“This is all about controlling the parties, and it’s not healthy,” Fulcher said. “If people are interacting, they’re in committees together, they’re doing active debates back and forth – heaven forbid going to lunch or dinner where you can start to build some rapport – then some of those walls are going to start to break down and that majority becomes much harder to keep together.”
Fulcher also cited problems familiar to anyone whose work has transitioned to videoconferencing platforms in the past year: muted microphones, dogs barking in the background and distracted colleagues. After he spoke at a March 22 hearing held via Zoom, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., questioned a witness from the driver’s seat of a moving car.
“It’s a horrible way to govern,” Fulcher said. “Yeah, it might be more convenient to stay home, but that’s not the intent of our Founding Fathers, and it’s having a horrifically negative impact on our country.”
But Democrats say the convenience of working from home isn’t the only thing keeping Congress from a return to normal. Fulcher is among roughly a quarter of House lawmakers who have not received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a March 10 letter from House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Although members of Congress have had access to the vaccine since December, Fulcher said he has chosen not to be vaccinated until he is eligible according to Idaho’s vaccine distribution timeline. The 59-year-old will have access to a shot along with all Idahoans aged 16 and older beginning Monday, Gov. Brad Little announced March 24.
“You’re gonna get criticized if you do or criticized if you don’t,” Fulcher said, emphasizing he is not anti-vaccine but doesn’t think getting inoculated is an urgent need because he is not among the people at highest risk from the virus.
“If you’re assisted living, elderly, you’ve got respiratory problems, it’s a good idea,” he said. “But I don’t have any of that, and I’m not in a risk category, so it’s worse for me to be criticized for jumping the line than just saying no.”
In his March 10 letter, McCarthy suggested inoculating 75% of members was enough to end remote work. But in a letter to lawmakers two days later, Congress’s Attending Physician Brian Monahan urged them all to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
The debate in Congress echoes nationwide arguments over restrictions on businesses and public gatherings, which GOP-led states have lifted more quickly even as Republican voters tell pollsters they are less likely to get vaccinated.
Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the Seattle suburbs, said vaccines are the key to both reopening the nation’s economy and returning to what lawmakers call “regular order” at the Capitol.
“Regular order means we’re all crowded in the chamber at the same time. It means we’re having face-to-face conversations. It means our constituents are coming into the Capitol, all of our staff is coming back,” Schrier said.
“If you want to get back to regular order, then members need to get vaccinated,” she said. “If you want the economy to open up fully, well, then it’s time to encourage vaccination. … You can’t have it both ways.”
Schrier, a pediatrician who has focused on combating vaccine hesitancy since she entered Congress in 2019, said elected officials also have a responsibility to set an example for the general public.
“The science is there, the science is clear,” Schrier said. “It is frustrating that public leaders are not setting a good example and it is frustrating that perhaps many of them are falling prey to the same misinformation that the public is falling prey to.”
While Fulcher said he plans to get vaccinated eventually, he acknowledged many of the people he represents may not.
“In my district, the culture is probably the majority of Idahoans will never get the vaccination at all, and that’s just because they’re skeptical of it,” he said. “We’re largely a rural state, and the more time goes on, the more people are convinced that this was a manufactured crisis to some extent.”
In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released March 11, 49% of Republican men said they would choose not to be vaccinated, more than any other demographic group in the survey. A survey of lawmakers by CNN found just one Democrat who had not been vaccinated, while most Republican members declined to answer, suggesting a similar rate of vaccine hesitancy among the 86%-male House GOP conference.
Fulcher confirmed there is little peer pressure among his fellow Republicans to get the shot, but said he believes Democrats are using the lack of vaccinations as an excuse to preserve the remote-work rules.
“I don’t think I have ever been asked by another member if I’ve had my vaccine,” Fulcher said. “At least on the Republican side, we just don’t talk about it. I think the other reason we haven’t heard about it is this is not the reason we’re not doing regular order. It’s a smokescreen.”
Not all Republicans share Fulcher’s attitude toward the vaccine. In his home state of Kentucky on Thursday, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell urged Republicans to get vaccinated to help speed the country’s recovery from the pandemic.
Idaho’s other representatives in Congress, Rep. Mike Simpson and Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, have all been vaccinated, according to their spokespeople. All three are over age 65 and were eligible for vaccines under Idaho rules.
Washington’s entire congressional delegation – including GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Jaime Herrera Beutler – has also been vaccinated, their offices confirmed.
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