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House report tables remote voting

Advocates say not all options were considered

A lone U.S. Capitol Police officer walks through the empty Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
A lone U.S. Capitol Police officer walks through the empty Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Remote voting is not coming to the House anytime soon, according to a Rules Committee report. But some advocates say the report didn’t fully consider the options available, and members are still pushing for emergency alternatives.

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern is not recommending remote voting as the solution to avoid bringing lawmakers back to Washington to vote on the nearly $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, but the Massachusetts Democrat is open to passing the bill by a voice vote or unanimous consent.

A public report and letter sent to lawmakers Monday night outlines the options for voting procedures during the unprecedented pandemic that is spreading across the country and even the Capitol.

“Clearly, the quickest and likely best path forward is for Congress to pass that measure by unanimous consent or by voice vote. Short of that, there are a few difficult options that we can consider utilizing,” McGovern wrote in a letter to his colleagues.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed the report’s conclusion Tuesday on MSNBC.

“My hope [is] that while we’re in the red zone here, that we get across the finish line and we can do so in a way that we can bring it to the floor under unanimous consent,” the California Democrat said, referring to the third installation of an economic stimulus package hashed out by Congress and the White House.

She said if they can’t get unanimous consent, the House will need to return to Washington and either amend the Senate’s bill or pass their own and go to conference.

Pelosi said the House should prepare for the need for remote voting in future, but addressing the immediate concerns posed by the coronavirus pandemic could not be done that way. She cited constitutional, technological and security concerns, but added, “None that can’t be addressed.”

Pelosi made clear that any remote voting system would need to undergo rigorous testing before the House could use it to conduct official legislative business.

“We want to be fully prepared, and none of those systems work unless you practice, practice, practice to make sure it works,” she said. “Technology, it’s a wonderful thing, but it has its glitches, and we’ve seen some examples of that.”

House Administration ranking member Rodney Davis told CQ Roll Call that a unanimous consent vote could be possible if the package the House considers is bipartisan.

“Under existing House Rules, adopting a COVID-19 package under Unanimous Consent is the most realistic way to avoid Members traveling back and forth to D.C. to vote,” the Illinois Republican said in a statement.

But he called provisions in the House Democrats’ own stimulus bill a “liberal wish list” and warned that if Democrats don’t drop some provisions, “we won’t be able to pass this much-needed relief for Americans by UC or by any other voting method.”

Growing calls

Pelosi commissioned the McGovern report last week after pressure grew from rank-and-file lawmakers for leadership to identify alternatives to gathering 435 members in a room to vote, which makes following social distancing protocols nearly impossible.

Pelosi had previously shot down the idea of remote voting when raised by her caucus and reporters.

Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, and Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat, tested positive for the new coronavirus last week, and more than a half-dozen other House members are in self-quarantine due to contact with people who have been infected.

Voting remotely would be “one of the biggest rule changes in the last century, in one of the most critical institutions in our country,” McGovern’s report says.

“Although off-the-shelf products exist to allow a Member to videoconference their vote, for example, they have not been tested under the sort of pressure they would face from enemy states or other bad actors trying to force the system offline or prevent individual Members from accessing it,” the report continues. “Such a system has to be extensively tested, not used for the first time on must-pass legislation.”

McGovern talked about the security concerns of remote voting on a House Democratic Caucus conference call Tuesday afternoon, noting that China, Russia and others may try to lock members out and interfere with such a system, according to a source on the call.

Quick pushback

The advocacy group Demand Progress issued a rebuttal Tuesday morning to the Rules Committee report, saying that it “contains significant lacunae that undermine its conclusions,” including a lack of consideration of videoconference voting or the potential for an extended absence from the Capitol.

The report did not address proposals for House members to vote via an online videoconference that can be publicly viewed by constituents and the media and in which roll call votes could be audible to all and recorded officially by the House clerk.

“Instead, it apparently contemplates the creation of an online tool where members push a button on an app to record a vote,” wrote Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress.

Schuman pointed out that while risks exist with any online system, one where there is public audio and visual confirmation of a lawmaker’s vote has more stopgaps than a push-button app system.

He suggested the use of Zoom or a similar videoconference tool, especially because Zoom has already been approved for use by House employees and has been signed off by the chamber’s top cybersecurity office. The Chief Administrative Officer has also approved the use of videoconferencing systems, including Office 365, VSee, WebEx and Skype.

The House Rules report warned of potential security threats against an internet-based voting system, as well as possible legal challenges from opponents of legislation passed under such a system. It cautioned against trying a new system for the first time on massive legislation such as the almost $2 trillion pandemic economic stimulus package.

Other steps

The report outlines an array of options for House leaders to alter voting procedures, when it comes to limiting contact among members. The House could do what the Senate has implemented and call lawmakers back to the Capitol and hold the votes open for extended periods of time to allow members to trickle in and out of the chamber and avoid crowding. The report suggested “sanitizing voting stations between uses” and “controlling how many people are in the chamber and their proximity to each other.”

Paired voting is one of the more complex options. It would allow a member unable to vote to work with another member who planned to vote the opposite way and convince them to vote “present.”

This was most recently used in the Senate during the contentious confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski intended to vote against the confirmation but instead voted “present” to offset the absence of fellow Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who would have voted “aye” but was in Montana to attend his daughter’s wedding.

If more than 215 House lawmakers are in quarantine or unable to travel to Washington, the chamber could invoke a post-9/11 House rule to reset the quorum, the report states.

The House could implement a “provisional quorum,” which would be based on the number of members who are able to return to the Capitol. If a traditional quorum cannot be reached after 96 hours due to “natural disaster, attack, contagion, or a similar calamity rendering Representatives incapable of attending the proceedings of the House,” a lower threshold for a quorum could be set.

The report notes that this rule was added three years after the 9/11 attacks following “years of study by the Rules Committee and outside experts.”

One potential rule change suggested in the report is allowing proxy voting. In this scenario, an absent member would allow a colleague to vote on their behalf, and the minority and majority leaders could serve as proxies for members of their respective parties for a verbal roll call vote. Members able and willing to vote in person on their own behalf could still do so.

McGovern said Tuesday that his official recommendation in the short term is proxy voting if a roll call vote is needed and members can’t travel, which Republicans seem amendable to collaborating on, according to the source on the call.

Earlier Monday, California Reps. Katie Porter and Eric Swalwell sent McGovern a letter co-signed by approximately 70 Democrats urging a temporary change to House rules to allow for remote voting during national emergencies.

“Unfortunately, during such circumstances, requiring members to vote in person may pose public health risks or even be physically impossible for persons under quarantine,” they wrote. “We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place.”

Arkansas Republican Rick Crawford, who wrote legislation with Swalwell that would enable members of Congress to virtually participate in committee hearings and to vote remotely on suspension bills from their home districts, continued to push for a remote voting option on Twitter after the release of the House Rules report .

“Continuity of government is critical. Let’s act! #RemoteVoting,” he tweeted.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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