It's Time for the Senate to Get Back to Work

April 21, 2020

Mr. President, it's with a heavy heart that I come to the floor of the Senate today.

Over the last few weeks I’ve talked to countless people throughout Utah and across the nation, but especially in Utah, about the troubles that they have encountered; about the profound sadness that the American people are experiencing right now; the frustrations that they have.

This is something that we've never seen in this country – not on this scale, not during our lifetimes. My thoughts and prayers go out to my fellow Americans and my fellow Utahns as they're struggling to make ends meet – whether it's figuring out how to make payroll, or keep food on the table at home, or a combination of both, as it is for so many. I'm mindful of them; and of all the difficulty that the American people are going through right now.

I want to begin by echoing something that Senator Schumer said a moment ago: we need to do what we were elected to do. Although I don't agree with everything Senator Schumer just said, and in fact I strongly disagree with a lot of what he just said, but I do agree with that. We need to do the job we were elected to do.

Let's think about where we are right now and where we've been over the last few weeks.

We've seen health care providers working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We've seen the president and his staff at the White House working 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. We've seen the Centers for Disease Control and members of the public health community who have continued to work tirelessly. Farmers and truck drivers and grocery store employees and pharmacists working to make sure that we continue to have access to the things we need in order to live. We've seen members of the news media working overtime, even if, as is the case for many of them, they do so only to blame all of this – rather unfairly, in my opinion – on the President of the United States. We see parents working both their jobs, both of them, and from home, and simultaneously homeschooling their children.

And yet, Congress is in recess.

This, Mr. President, is simply unacceptable. If COVID-19 requires Congress to act, then it requires Congress to convene.

Now, look, I understand the need for distancing; and there are ways we can accommodate that here. Support staff can stay home. Policy experts can mostly work from home. Many of our meetings – most of them, in fact – can be conducted over the phone or by video conference. I've seen this myself in the last few weeks. I've been working as many hours as ever, just with a lot of meetings over the phone and through Zoom and platforms like that. The meetings continue.

But all the essential work of Congress – that is, any step necessary in order to enact legislation, the task of legislating itself – can be done only by members who are voting and present in their respective legislative chamber, either this Senate or the House of Representatives.

This is a nondelegable duty. We can't delegate it to anybody else in government.

We've got exactly two choices, Mr. President. We can choose to legislate, in which case we have to convene. Or we can stay in recess and not legislate. Those really are the only two options.

It is no coincidence, it is no accident, that the very clause of the very first section of the very first article of the Constitution says that “all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in the Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and the House of Representatives.” Article 1, Section 7, then goes on to prescribe the formula by which all federal law will be enacted. This, Mr. President, may happen only when the same discreet set of words presented in the form of a legislative proposal passes the House and the Senate, and is then submitted to the president for signature or veto.

Under our constitutional system, under any definition of the term, senators are essential employees. We're being paid. We have a crisis to continue to work through. Our services are necessary. And in order to perform those services, we have to perform them here in Washington.

To be very clear about this, this isn't entirely a new thing. Sure, the most recent iteration of this is new, and began with the COVID-19 crisis about a month ago. But the fact is that Congress has in many respects been shirking its responsibilities for years… for decades, in fact.

For the better part of the last – I don't know, three, four, five, six decades – Congress has been backing away from its law-making responsibilities. We have ceded voluntarily, sometimes willfully, the responsibility for making law – in some cases to the courts; and in many, many cases to executive branch agencies.

This for many is a feature, not a bug; but it's an unconstitutional feature. It's something that we should dismiss and render a bug.

You see, we can't delegate that power. It's supposed to belong only to us, and that means we're not supposed to enact law saying “entity X, Y, or Z shall enact with law in the area of expertise of that agency.”

But in this crisis, we doubled down on that decades-long bad habit. In many cases, within Congress itself, we've empowered party leaders to negotiate in secret – sort of asking us to rubber stamp these “take it or leave it” proposals without individual members being able to read them, let alone have meaningful input in their negotiation… and reducing the role of each individual elected lawmaker in the law-making process to a series of tweets and press conferences.

This isn't legislating.
I was interested a few minutes ago, when Senator Schumer was talking, as he was referring to provisions that were “negotiated successfully last night” to add this or that provision into this deal.

Well, most of us were not part of that process. Most of us saw this legislative package, this bill, only within the last few hours.

That, Mr. President, isn't a true negotiation. It's not a true legislative process.

I understand that we're in unusual circumstances, but we can't let it happen this way again. This is not acceptable.

We should not be passing major legislation – especially legislation providing nearly a half trillion dollars in new spending – without Congress actually being in session; without members actually being here to debate, discuss, amend and consider legislation; and to vote on it individually, rather than on an absentee basis, rather than by delegating that power to someone else.

This crisis is too big to leave up to a small handful of people. Different parts of the country will face different kinds of threats and, therefore, have different kinds of needs. Different industries will need different kinds of help in order to recover the health of the economy.

And as long as Congress is in recess, Democrats are free to politicize, stifle legislation with impunity, as they did just a couple of weeks ago. Only returning to work – and indeed, actually working – will give the American people the government they deserve.

The American people need to know who is helping them, and who is simply playing politics. We can't allow them to know that if we're not in session. We can't just spend another half trillion dollars every week or two or three and hope and pretend that it's going to turn out okay.

The upcoming challenges are far too numerous and onerous and complex to leave up to just a few staff meetings behind closed doors.

We've got issues involving testing, masks, health care policy, liability, leave, regulatory reform, immigration, and the judicial system, just to name a few. All of these things require serious action, serious legislative action. We can't just give those issues the attention that they deserve simply by sitting in our respective homes.

Now look, I’m not saying that Members aren't working. I and most the members I know have been working as hard as ever in the last few weeks; but we can't do that which is uniquely our job. Sure, we can have meetings, we can make phone calls, we can help solve problems just like any other American could; but we cannot do the job for which we were elected without actually being here.

You see, Mr. President, the reason Congress works so little – even in moments like this one – is because Congress has chosen to prioritize its own convenience.

The three and a half-day legislative workweek, blocking tough amendment votes, nuclear options, things like this. Look, they are all reminders of the fact that we have to get back to work, especially if we're going to have a debate about when everyone else will be able to return to work.

If it makes anyone feel better, remember the Senate floor is often empty, just as it is at this very moment, making it perhaps the safest place in America. We can, in fact, structure our votes in such a way that we can distance ourselves. We've proven that in recent weeks. We can do it again.

In closing, Mr. President, we have to remember that challenges don't themselves build character. They reveal it. Our character is revealed rather than built on challenging times. The character of our institutions is on the line here. It's being exposed and revealed for all the world to see.

COVID-19 certainly has revealed to us the character of the Chinese government, and its lackeys inside the World Health Organization. It has revealed the character of America’s doctors and nurses, our priests and our pastors. Our families and our communities have pulled together. Many state and local leaders have proven themselves to be up to the challenge, especially – I say with great pride – both Democrats and Republicans in my home state of Utah.

Congress stepped up before we recessed to appropriate money for workers and businesses who were facing an unprecedented monumental crisis, but that was weeks ago. That was literally 20 million lost jobs ago.

There is more to do. There is a lot more. More than we have ever faced. The country's changing, along with the rest of the world, and we need policy to change with it.

Unlike millions of our constituents, Members of Congress are still receiving paychecks. It's time for us to earn them. It's time to do our job. It's time to return to Washington and get to work.

We're not currently scheduled to come back until May 4th. When we come back on May the 4th, which I hope we do, I hope the force will be with us. But we have got to get back, I would hope, even sooner than that; because we can't legislate without our members here. We can't do that from recess.

Thank you, Mr. President.