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Coronavirus keeps Georgia members of Congress working at home

Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter of Pooler, left, helps distribute food at the Old Savannah City Mission. (Photo provided by Carter’s office.)
Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter of Pooler, left, helps distribute food at the Old Savannah City Mission. (Photo provided by Carter’s office.)

Georgia’s members of Congress say they have adjusted to a new way of carrying out their duties during this period of sheltering in place.

In the old days — before March — they either attended caucus and committee meetings in person or missed them outright. They greeted one another with hugs and handshakes and welcomed visitors to ornate offices at the U.S. Capitol complex before hopping flights home for the weekend.

Today, they are teleworking from home like many of us. Only, on the other end of their continuous video chats and conference calls are President Donald Trump, public health officials, local nonprofits and industry executives.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Lithonia Democrat, has a home office where he participates in the many phone calls that consume his day, and he uses Zoom to meet with staff. It doesn’t replace being in Washington, though.

“I miss the day-to-day workings of Capitol Hill,” Johnson said, “and I’m frustrated that congressional oversight is stifled by Congress being absent from Washington.”

Still, these days working from home are busy. Lawmakers field constituent calls about safety nets, health care benefits and bailouts. Most of them are also in the middle of campaign season, which means being innovative in how they connect with people via websites, texting and social media.

Tune into one of U.S. Rep. Doug Collins’ livestreams — he is running for the U.S. Senate — and you’re liable to catch a glimpse of Cree, his Shih Tzu.

“She has made quite an appearance on Facebook Live,” the Gainesville Republican said.

Most of Georgia’s members said the transition to a technology-focused work life has not been difficult. They were already using computers and smartphones, so it’s just more of the same.

“We are in constant communication,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans. “A lot of times we have to go directly to the source, whether that’s Treasury, (Health and Human Services) or leadership.”

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat from Albany, is one of the eldest members of the delegation. This new way of doing business has been more difficult for him, although he embraces the opportunity to learn new skills.

Luckily, his 12-year-old granddaughter, Londyn, is around to help.

“It’s a challenge,” Bishop said. “Particularly for somebody like me who is not tech-savvy. But it’s a foreshadow of what work will look like in the future as we move in that direction.”

The U.S. Senate stayed in Washington until it passed the CARES Act, a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, on March 25. The House was home on a scheduled break, but most of its members had to return to vote after a conservative representative from Kentucky blocked an effort to allow it to pass by unanimous consent.

Since then, however, they have been instructed to stay home.

Additional coronavirus legislation may be proposed, such as adding money to a federal program to help keep small businesses afloat. Eventually, Congress is also expected to discuss a fourth coronavirus bill that provides more stimulus for families, local governments, hospitals and businesses.

Congressional leaders and the Trump administration might finalize a deal this week.

If they do, there is a chance the U.S. House will allow members for the first time in history to cast votes by designating a colleague as their proxy. If that happens, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it will only be allowed temporarily and under strict guidelines.

Meanwhile, Georgia lawmakers say they are busy tending to constituents’ needs.

In the earliest weeks of the outbreak, that included helping Georgians who were on cruises or overseas when quarantine orders came down. U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler sent her own plane to pick up a Georgian couple who had been stuck on a cruise ship, and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, convened a diplomatic meeting to help people stranded in Peru among other places.

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, said his office has helped 53 constituents return to the U.S. from places such as Zambia and Honduras. U.S. Sen. David Perdue helped people traveling from Morocco and India.

More recently, U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, has focused on assisting businesses and banks with questions about the Paycheck Protection Program that provided federal loans to keep workers on payrolls. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, said his office is getting calls from people awaiting stimulus checks from the Internal Revenue Service.

Congressional offices are still handling the usual requests for assistance from veterans or students applying to military academies. Only one type of inquiry has seemed to decline: people don’t need as much help with passports or visas because overseas travel has largely stopped.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, said constituent service requests have increased overall, and his team is keeping its full-time office hours while working remotely.

Nearly every member of Congress has held one or more tele-town hall meetings to allow the public to ask questions about the coronavirus or speak to experts about assistance programs and the public health response. They have also updated their websites to include information about the virus and available resources.

Still, like everyone else now working from home, this period has allowed Georgia’s members of Congress to draw closer to family and neighbors. For those outside of their immediate circles, that means phone calls and video chats instead of visits.

“I certainly miss my grandchildren, children, dad and other family members,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler. “Like many Americans, I can’t wait to see them again soon. But we all need to do our part to help end the pandemic as soon as possible.”

Social distancing has taken different forms for these lawmakers. Johnson and his wife wear gloves and masks whenever they venture outside, careful not to risk infecting his 93-year-old mother, who lives with them.

Loudermilk spoke to a Sunday school class via videoconference on Easter, then livestreamed morning services. He is also catching up on yardwork and home repairs.

McBath said she gets in more walks with her dog, Harley. Loeffler and her husband are ordering takeout to help support local restaurants. Carter misses his barber.

Many of them are cooking more and giving their dresses and suits a rest.

Said Hice: “Less ties; more T-shirts.”