Tens of millions of Americans are working from home amid the coronavirus pandemic. Not Congress. The House of Representatives recently abandoned a plan to allow lawmakers to cast votes remotely, and on April 28 decided not to return to Washington because of fears for the health of lawmakers. “We had no choice,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. Meanwhile, a bipartisan Senate effort to conduct business virtually remains stalled.
Yet the nation’s founders confronted a similar crisis, and left behind a blueprint for Congress to do its job safely and effectively in spite of contagious illness. The trouble began in the late summer of 1793 in Philadelphia, then the country’s capital. President George Washington called what happened next “the calamity.”