Will we get back to in-person meetings on Capitol Hill? When?? How? COVID-19 is still around, even as the country’s mood is lightening about the overall impact of the virus. And the safety and security of lawmakers and staff are of top-of-mind after the deadly January 6 riot and April 2 attempt at breaching the Capitol grounds. Let’s explore when in-person meetings might return and what those meetings could look like.
It is happening?
By and large, in-person advocacy isn’t happening, at least not on the Hill. Since March 2020, advocacy has shifted online to videoconferencing like Zoom and telephone calls. However, that doesn’t mean Members haven’t been yearning for a return to normal. On March 10, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) requesting a timeline on when certain in-person activities can restart, including allowing visitors in House office buildings. While Pelosi has not officially responded to the letter, many Democrats say it’s premature to relax restrictions, partially due to the fact that a number of Republican lawmakers have yet to be vaccinated.
Any decision on when to loosen restrictions will ultimately be up to Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, in consultation with the Office of the Attending Physician (OAP). While the Capitol complex and adjacent congressional office buildings are exempt from public health guidelines from the Government of the District of Columbia, leadership and the OAP are using local COVID-19 health guidances to inform decisions. These guidelines were last updated February 23 and include masking, de-densifying Hill offices, staggered schedules, and teleworking.
What is open?
Presently, both the House and Senate office buildings are only open to Members, staff, and credentialed press, and while official business visitors are permitted in congressional offices, they must always require staff escorts. House staff may only escort a maximum of nine visitors at a time, while Senate staff are limited to 15 visitors. However, this does not mean that advocates have regular, unfettered access to congressional offices.
What about off the Hill?
Over the past few weeks, some lawmakers and staff, mostly Republicans, have resumed some degree of in-person activities, including fundraising dinners, due to relaxations in local restrictions on event sizes as well as new CDC guidelines that allow small groups of vaccinated individuals to gather in-person. Republicans are also hosting fundraising trips around the country. Lobbyists and advocates are also interacting in-person with legislators instates and congressional districts where COVID-19 restrictions have been loosened more considerably.
When will things get back to normal?
Anecdotally, some congressional staff and lobbyists are saying in-person meetings may not be permitted on Capitol Hill until 2022. Whether this happens sooner or later depends on countless factors, including the pace of vaccinations, level of vaccination hesitancy, local restrictions in DC, and to what extent any COVID-19 variants impact the effectiveness of current vaccines.
What will change permanently?
With most details about the future of in-person meetings on the Hill being speculative, one likelihood is the continued use of videoconferencing technology that can complement in-person meetings. During the pandemic, teleconferencing has been used to great effect to connect advocates who normally wouldn’t be able to make a trip to Washington with lawmakers and staff, which leaves open the possibility for a “hybrid” approach that incorporates building relationships both in-person and virtually.
Furthermore, the aftermath of the January 6 riot on Capitol could serve as the basis for other permanent changes. Even after the pandemic ends, some congressional staff and lobbyists feel that certain security measures could stick around, meaning limits on in-person meetings could persist. For instance, limits on group sizes could continue, which would certainly impact large-scale fly-ins. At the moment, however, both Members of Congress and lobbyists are more focused on removing physical barriers such as fencing and razor wire from the perimeter of the Capitol complex. On March 15, for example, the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics sent a letter to the Speaker urging the removal of all physical barriers by July 1.