Brindisi Sees Congress As Eager, But Cautious About Capitol Hill Return
For Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., the sentiments of those he was elected to serve have become a familiar refrain over the course of the coronavirus emergency.
“Folks are anxious to reopen the economy, of course, but mostly, I think they’re being cautious,” he said.
“My district is about a three-hour drive north of New York City, one of the epicenters of the outbreak in the United States, and in a lot of ways we’ve been lucky — we haven’t been hit as hard,” Brindisi said.
“Still, what’s happened in New York City and its surrounding communities is having an impact statewide, and for the most part, what I’m hearing from my constituents is they want to wait for the scientific evidence that says it’s truly safe to reopen,” he continued, adding, “They don’t want to make that decision based on politics.”
A former New York State Assemblyman, Brindisi has represented New York’s 22nd Congressional District since 2019.
His district truly comprises the heart of New York State, reaching from the east end of Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border, and encompassing the cities of Utica, Rome, and Binghamton.
It is also one of five regions in the state that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared able to begin reopening as of Friday.
That means, manufacturing, construction and agricultural activity can resume, and some retail stores can reopen, though they are limited to providing curbside or in-store pickup for their customers.
Reflecting on the past several weeks of sheltering-at-home in his district, Brindisi admitted, “It’s definitely been a challenge, this new dynamic that we’re all experiencing.”
“I would say I’m just as busy now, if not busier than I was before, because of the tremendous need out there among my constituents and business owners and folks that have been laid off since the pandemic started,” he said.
“Of course much of what I’ve been doing is helping them get access to the new programs we created in the relief bills in Congress,” he added.
Brindisi’s conversation with The Well News took place prior to Friday’s vote on the new $3 trillion coronavirus package and a separate proposal changing House rules to allow proxy voting and remote committee work by members of Congress.
Brindisi said he didn’t see why a bipartisan agreement could not be worked out on virtual hearings, but quickly added he feels “nothing is going to take the place of personal interaction with other members of Congress.
“I’m someone who deeply believes in relationship building and trying to find common ground with other members … and it’s definitely easier to do that face-to-face as opposed to over a virtual call or cell phone,” he said. “On the other hand, I understand that in the new world that we are all in, those kinds of personal interactions are just not possible.”
“So I’ve been reaching out through Zoom calls and every way I can during this time, and I think I’ve managed to be as engaged with other members of Congress as I was before,” he added.
The measure being considered in the House on Friday authorizes the speaker, in consultation with the minority leader, to temporarily implement remote committee proceedings and remote voting when the chamber has been notified by the Sergeant-at-Arms, in consultation with the attending physician of the House, that a public health emergency exists due to the coronavirus.
The authority lasts for 45 days, though it can be extended or renewed if the public health emergency persists.
The resolution also spells out specific new rules for proxy voting by members who are not able to be on the House floor due to the pandemic. In order to cast a vote by proxy, a member has to inform the clerk of the chamber that they intend to do so, and then provide exact written instruction on precisely how that vote is to be cast.
The measure was expected to pass by a party line vote, and Brindisi described the road to the vote as “pretty rocky.”
“Personally, I don’t see why we can’t carry out our duties of congressional oversight through virtual hearings, and I think we should figure out a way to get that done,” he said. “And I can tell you, there’s definitely some frustration on the part of members who feel that there needs to be more hearings right now, not less.”
Brindisi was quick to point out, however, that a lack of House hearings in recent weeks doesn’t mean nothing has been going on in the chamber.
“I’m on the phone with committee chairs and other members of Congress every day, and I’ve done virtual calls with the various caucuses and coalitions I’m involved in,” he said. “So behind the scenes, there really is a lot going on in regard to shaping policy and making sure that my priorities are known to leadership.
“What’s different, in a sense, is that it’s not available for consumption on C-SPAN right now. So the public doesn’t get to see what individual members are actually accomplishing on their behalf,” Brindisi said.
As to the question of when Congress might come back and work on Capitol Hill as it did before the pandemic struck, the representative said that very topic was the subject of a virtual briefing he attended with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a member of the congressional Problem Solvers Caucus.
“I think she’s really looking to bring us back, but is making sure it’s done in a safe manner, in consultation with the attending physician,” Brindisi said. “I have said that we should come back when we can actually vote on something that has bipartisan support and can be signed into law.”
Asked how he’d manage the return of his staff to Capitol Hill if lawmakers were to return anytime soon, Brindisi said he would “very much follow the guidance of the health experts.”
“In terms of how we do it, I’m certainly going to defer to the doctors and those with an expertise on how it can be done safely,” he said. “I don’t want to bring anyone back at a time when it’s unsafe to do so.”
Brindisi said when he returned to Washington two weeks ago to vote on the interim coronavirus relief bill, he was the only person actually in his congressional office, and his staff continued to work remotely from their homes.
“That’s just fine for now,” he said.
As for interacting with the scores of people members of Congress routinely speak with in the course of their work, Brindisi said until there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus, social distancing and virtual meetings will likely remain the norm.
“It’s going to take a long time to get back to normal,” the congressman. “That’s really not going to happen until the virus goes away.”
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