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‘It’s very eerie’: Maryland lawmakers warily navigate desolate Capitol Hill, find creative ways to keep working

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger works in his Timonium office.
U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger works in his Timonium office. (Courtesy of RuppersbergerÕs office/Courtesy of RuppersbergerÕs office)

The calls and emails arrive by the thousands from Marylanders seeking aid or advice from Washington as they anxiously navigate the disconcerting new world created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The state’s elected U.S. representatives and their staffs — most of whom have abandoned the U.S. Capitol complex and are working remotely — say they may never be needed more than today, when a virus threatens their constituents’ livelihoods and health.

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“People need, now more than ever, to know that government is there to help them,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat.

But in this trying period — when elected officials’ reputations can be made or broken — the lawmakers have an added strain: learning how to conduct business from afar.

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The Capitol is closed to the public because of the coronavirus outbreak. Except for votes, many representatives, senators and their staffs are working from home or other locations to try to stay out of harm’s way. Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and several House members have tested positive, and more than a dozen members are self-quarantining as a precaution.

The Capitol’s corridors are quiet, and most of the members’ offices are vacant or staffed by one or two people. There are hundreds of hand sanitizer stations in the complex — more, it seems, than there are people to use them.

Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. David Trone was assigned the task of convening the House’s daily business as the “speaker pro tempore.” Walking around the complex was “very eerie, very lonely,” he said. “And it really brings home the gravity of the situation to have this hub of frenetic activity that it normally is completely desolate.”

Like the members of many other congressional offices, Trone and his staff are working from home and communicating by phone and through Zoom, a video conferencing platform.

On a typical week before the coronavirus hit, the Democrat’s office was getting 953 constituent emails, phone calls or letters. Last week, Trone’s office — which represents a district stretching from Montgomery County to western Maryland — said it received 3,977.

Other lawmakers have been deluged, too.

“We’re working around the clock right now because it’s an emergency situation,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who has forwarded the office phones so that staffers can quickly handle constituent calls at home.

Van Hollen, a Democrat, has been working from his Montgomery County home and traveling to the Capitol for floor speeches or votes. He pushed successfully for expanded unemployment benefits to be included in an economic aid package tied to the virus.

“I’ve got my iPad and my phone (at home) and I can keep my TV on in the background. I do have a home office, although I’ve unfortunately spread out over too much of the house,” Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen and Baltimore-area Rep. John Sarbanes have long pushed for the federal government to allow more employees to work remotely.

“One of the main arguments for telework is continuity of operations,” said Sarbanes, a Democrat. “We used to talk about what it would be like in the middle of a snowstorm.” Now, Sarbanes said, the nation is facing the storm of storms and “our staff is teleworking completely.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said the crisis also illustrates the need to allow remote voting by members of Congress. Cardin is 76, and many other senators are also old enough to be more at risk from coronavirus than people in other age groups.

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“I do not think we should vote on the floor. There’s no need for us to do that," Cardin said. "I think we really need to lead by example.”

Opponents say remote voting could present security and other problems.

Cardin traveled Wednesday to Capitol Hill from his Pikesville home to promote a $377 billion small business aid plan that is part of the $2 trillion economic assistance package the Senate was debating.

“These are going to be funds that go to small businesses that do not have to be paid back,” said Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee, on the Senate floor. “Why? Because a small business owner can’t incur more debt today when they have no idea how they’re going to be able to survive in the future.”

Cardin’s office suite is staffed by one person — Gray Maxwell, his floor director.

When Cardin joins Maxwell in Washington, he said, “I’ll use a wipe literally for anything I touch. And use sanitizer regularly.”

The senator may be in the same suite as Maxwell, but, as a precaution, they don’t communicate face to face.

“We talk on the telephone. We do not talk in person,” Cardin said.

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