For nearly two months, my staff and I have been fielding calls from the people of southwest Alabama—small-business owners, bankers, seniors and many others. The government’s response to coronavirus is affecting their livelihoods, and their congressman may be the only voice they have in Washington. But when the lights are turned off in the committee rooms and on the floor of the House, who’s watching out for them? Who’s holding Washington accountable?
More important than the flawed message Congress’s absence sends to the American people—that their representatives value personal protection over their constituents’ interests—is the reality. When nobody is around, it is easier to make backroom deals, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is taking advantage. She has consolidated the power of the institution in her person. Without lawmakers there to speak up for their districts and influence the legislative process, Mrs. Pelosi has made herself the sole voice and negotiator for the House, as it passes massive funding and regulatory bills.
As Congress sits at home, we don’t hear about legislative compromises and breakthroughs between a chairman and ranking member. Instead what matters is when and how often Mrs. Pelosi has been on the phone with White House officials.
Her mode of operating is crystal clear. Once the speaker feels she has gained maximum concessions from President Donald Trump, she calls the House back to Washington to be quickly and quietly herded into the chamber to cast an up-or-down vote—bypassing committees, markups and every process that gives most lawmakers a voice. We’re told no amendments are possible and we shouldn’t even get close to the floor of the House until it is our turn to vote. We have added trillions to the nation’s debt and affected millions of American lives in this ridiculous sham of a process.
The coronavirus has given Mrs. Pelosi the greatest control over the House of Representatives of any speaker in U.S. history. Fear of the virus has given her an excuse to send 434 of us home and essentially say, “See you when I need you.” Before Republicans objected two weeks ago, she even sought an amendment to House rules to allow for proxy voting. Under this plan, representatives wouldn’t even need to return to Washington to vote and pass legislation. They could simply hand over their voting cards to Mrs. Pelosi or one of her lieutenants.
I am not saying the House should throw caution to the winds. Common-sense steps could help with social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Congress. But the Founders couldn’t possibly have wanted a government in which the speaker replaces the House she is supposed to lead.
Maybe we should have expected this. Mrs. Pelosi has always enjoyed holding power. When ObamaCare passed the House, she made a good show of asking committees to mark up bills. But none of those bills ever reached the floor. Instead, they were tossed aside and the real bill was rewritten behind closed doors by the speaker’s office. Mrs. Pelosi then blocked all but one Republican amendment before jamming that bill through.
After eight years in the minority, Mrs. Pelosi returned as speaker in January 2019. House Democratic arms were twisted to vote her back into the chair, with promises that things would be different, that her highhanded manner was a thing of the past. But given power again, it only got worse.
While the Senate works in Washington this week, the House will again be told to stay home and wait on the speaker to let us know when she has cut the next deal. Mrs. Pelosi has made clear that she thinks America’s elected representatives are nonessential. That’s fine with her. No doubt her job is easier when she doesn’t need to worry about us—and our constituents.
Enough is enough. It is time for the people’s representatives to have a voice in their federal government.
Bradley Byrne, a Republican, represents Alabama’s First Congressional District.
Republished with permission of Bradley Byrne. This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.