I had not enjoyed the pleasure of meeting the new House Chaplain, retried Rear Adm. Margaret Grun Kibben, until just the other day. This is ironic. I broke the story late last year that Kibben would become the new chaplain – the first female to hold the post. A Presbyterian minister, Kibben is the former Chaplain of the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy.
I had only seen Kibben from the dais in the House chamber when she would offer the opening prayer to start the daily sessions in the House of Representatives. And until a few days ago, I had never seen Kibben without a mask when she offered the invocations. So I wasn’t even sure if I would recognize her in the halls of the Capitol.
But there was Kibben a couple of days ago, heading for a House exit, saying hello to Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and his pre-K son.
So I introduced myself to Kibben. We chatted for a moment. And, as we were about to go our separate ways, Kibben asked if I would lower my mask for a second. Since she had never seen me, Kibben wanted to know what I looked like.
I appreciated the gesture. I lowered my mask and smiled but immediately realized the irony of the moment. Minutes before my encounter with Kibben is when I made a decision to begin masking up again around the Capitol. I would wear it in the hall. To press conferences. Pretty much anywhere I would go except when I had to go on the air. And, the walkabout of the Capitol where I encountered Kibben was the first time I had been anywhere in the complex, re-masked.
I have really not worn a mask around the halls of the Capitol since late May. I would mask up when I parked my car, trudge across the Capitol plaza and leave it on until I got to my booth inside. If I had to go talk to lawmakers, attend a press conference or go on the air, the mask returned.
But the House began relaxing masking rules a few weeks ago in the chamber and in surrounding corridors for vaccinated persons. I’ve been vaccinated for months. So I began to lose the mask when I’d run around the Capitol doing my reporting.
Mask-donning diminished markedly around the Capitol from about mid-May. Lawmakers. U.S. Capitol Police. Aides. Press conferences in the House Radio-TV Gallery returned to full capacity. The weekly Senate policy lunch press conferences even returned from the Russell and Hart Senate Office Buildings to a crowded Ohio Clock Corridor just outside the Senate chamber.
And then people got spooked over the past few days as the Delta variant took hold.
House and Senate Democrats paraded Democratic Texas state legislators around Capitol Hill – AWOL from Austin to block a Republican voting bill – as celebrities. Then at least six of the Texas Democrats contracted coronavirus. The breakthrough infection rate for those who are vaccinated is one case for nearly every 10,000 vaccinations. For the Texas Democrats, their infection rate spiked to more than ten percent.
Then a White House aide tested positive for COVID-19 – as did a communications aide for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Pelosi began periodically donning a mask again around the Capitol. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., announced he finally got the vaccine. Same with Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., survived polio as a child. The Kentucky Republican chastised those who haven’t received jabs.
“These shots need to get in everybody’s arms as rapidly as possible or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for – that we went through last year,” excoriated McConnell. “This is not complicated.”
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., announced he tested positive in recent days. He’s the first lawmaker to test positive since Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., on January 29. A spate of lawmakers became infected after the holidays and following the January riot. Buchanan has been fully vaccinated for months. He became the 23rd House member to test positive since the 117th Congress began on January 3. The late Rep. Ron Wright, R-Texas, died from COVID on February 7.
The House just extended its “remote voting” protocol a few weeks ago through August 17. This is where members may “phone in” their votes to a proxy on the floor if they are sidelined – supposedly due to COVID-19 or related concerns. When the pandemic struck, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., began stretching out roll call votes to well over an hour. That enabled social distancing. The House divided lawmakers into groups and asked them to only come to the chamber when it was their turn to vote.
In February, Hoyer began shrinking the length of votes. He’s condensed them several times since then. By mid-June, Hoyer shortened vote times in the House to 20 minutes apiece. In non-pandemic times, the first vote in a series on the floor usually takes 22-25 minutes. Votes after that may only last five minutes or a scant two minutes.
But the bottom line is that votes on the floor now look a lot more like they did prior to the pandemic. That means Members coming in whenever they want to vote. Hanging out. Backslapping. Chatting in small groups toward the rear of the chamber. All of the things that House officials were trying to prevent people from doing during the worst days of the pandemic.
“Now we’re not wearing masks,” said Hoyer. “We’re going to have to decide…whether or not prudence demands that we go back to wearing masks.”
Capitol Attending Physician Dr. Brian Monahan underscored the severity of the Delta variant in a statement to Congressional aides this week. He noted that “several vaccinated Congressional staff members” experienced breakthrough infections. Monahan said the Centers for Disease Control isn’t recommending masking for vaccinated persons indoors. But he noted that people “have the personal discretion” to don masks if they choose.
Then, buried deep in Monahan’s dense statement was this word salad: “. . . future developments in the coronavirus Delta variant local threat may require the resumption of mask wear for all as now seen in several countries and the United States.”
It was a garbled suffix to a run-on sentence. But Monahan put it out there: mask requirements could return. Even on Capitol Hill.
Nothing declarative. Nothing concrete. Sort of priming the pump.
Regardless, more masks appeared on Capitol Hill – just as they have voluntarily in many quarters of the country.
It is said that the nation’s history plays out under the Capitol Dome. And just as local communities are resuscitating debates about masks, such is the case on Capitol Hill as well.