When John Kennedy was murdered in November, 1963, the Washington Star columnist Mary McGrory famously said, “We shall never laugh again,” to which Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later to become a famous senator, replied, “Mary, we’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again.”
That Cold War tete-a-tete is surely to be repeated, at another level and for a new era, when official Washington begins slowly and incrementally to awaken to the reality of the Covid-19 chapter of American history. The only thing that will have changed in our nation’s capital is everything, which is to say, the way in which the city has historically done business and navigated itself has been inalterably shifted and reimagined.
In its 231-year history – through Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, major recessions, Watergate, Vietnam, the three wars of the last 30 years, etc. – there has never been a time when the United States Congress has not met in person and voted in person. To do otherwise, even up to two weeks ago, would have thought unthinkable.
But as a direct result of America’s current domestic war –- the attack of an invisible, lethal pathogen – remote voting will be installed in the House whereby Members of Congress will be given the option of remaining in their home districts and merely appointing a proxy on the House floor to vote in their behalf. This is genuinely a radical change.
The United States Senate, perhaps the most tradition-bound institution in America with only one exception, refuses to move toward proxy voting; but it is inevitable, if there is, God-forbid, a second round of Covid spikes, that even that legislative upper house may need to find a contemporary manner in which to do its daily business. The current muddle of discontinued subcommittee and committee hearings has become, for some members, intolerable.
Most people who watch, track, and work with Congress most closely have been told that, in the post-Quarantine era, the House and Senate will revert to in-person voting, in-person hearings, and in-person modes of doing daily and weekly business. Having worked on or near Capitol Hill for three decades, I feel confident that will not be the case. Some changes are so dramatic, you can never go back again, at least completely.
Some of the current “temporarily-remote” ways of doing business in the House and Senate will likely be concretized into permanence and will thus fundamentally change how the House does much of its work. With likely airline snafus and other related transportation hurdles on the cusp, there will be every incentive to reform the old decorum and to favor less centrality on the Hill and in the city.
Thousands of people who work on the Hill, in the federal bureaucracy and in the institutions most associated with the work of the legislative an executive branches have now had a two-month sense of how working remotely can be made to work, and there will be inclinations toward keeping more people away from the capitol core of the city.
Similarly, there has not been a time in White House history where there were so many daily hurdles to even getting inside the complex, much less near-to or inside the West Wing where the president, vice president, and their most senior staffs work. To what was an already highly-restricted working space before Covid will be added layers of keeping more people away. The risk is simply too high for infection; in fact, even with the most stringent barriers in Washington, senior White House aides still were infected and necessarily quarantined.
Perhaps the biggest immediate change of Washington, D.C., in the post-quarantine era will be its impact on the United States Supreme Court. Two members of that august body are in their 80s; four of the members, including the Chief Justice, are in their 60s or above; and for the first time in the court’s contemporary history, the justices heard 10 major cases, met in conference, and had discussions by teleconference, allowing the public for the first time to listen to cases as they were actually being argued. Lawyers making the cases were doing so from their living rooms via telephonic connection.
There has been a longtime push to allow the public to listen to real-time audio from the court cases as they are being argued; others have pushed for TV coverage, much like C-SPAN. The justices say such coverage would impede the way the cases are both argued and decided. It seems unlikely at this juncture that real-time TV and radio are in the offing, but it is does not seem unlikely that, with the viral threat ongoing, new procedures and protocols will be adopted to modify how the Court adjusts to the new normal, and that may include a modified version of real-time audio.
The Irish-Anglo statesman Edmund Burke famously observed that the best definition of a healthy conservatism is that which allows worthy institutions to be reformed in order to be preserved. It seems to me Burke’s definition accords with right reason in the public square of a post-Quarantine, twenty-first century Washington, D.C.
The Constitution has a fixed meaning and purpose; its original vision remains more vital today than ever; the way contemporary Washington adapts and reforms will be the largest historical question going-forward, and will be fascinating to watch and help impact.
Timothy S. Goeglein is the vice president for External and Government Relations for Focus on the Family.
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