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Partisanship crowds into House’s proxy and remote voting debate

House Rules to consider proxy voting resolution Wednesday

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer hold a socially distanced press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday after the Senate passed a coronavirus relief package during a pro forma session.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer hold a socially distanced press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday after the Senate passed a coronavirus relief package during a pro forma session. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House continued to grapple Tuesday with how to conduct urgent legislative business amid the coronavirus pandemic, moving ahead with a Democratic effort to change the rules to allow remote proxy voting, despite no lack of concern among members.

The House Rules Committee will convene Wednesday to consider a resolution to temporarily allow an absent lawmaker to designate a colleague to vote on floor matters on his or her behalf.

The chamber is expected to consider a $483.4 billion coronavirus relief package Thursday, and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced that a proxy voting resolution may be brought for a vote during the session.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the “PBS NewsHour” that while the House may vote on both the same day, proxy voting will not be used during the vote on the aid package.

Hoyer said Tuesday that proxy voting is only an initial step toward remote operations for the House. In a letter, the Maryland Democrat urged the chamber’s Rules and Administration committees to explore the use of videoconferencing during emergencies to allow remote voting and remote committee action. He also asked that they focus on how Congress can conduct business in Washington in compliance with social distancing guidelines. 

“We ought to use this time as an opportunity to prepare for Congress to be able to work according to its full capabilities even with social and physical distancing guidelines in place,” Hoyer wrote.

[House to vote on remote proxy voting as soon as Thursday]

House Democrats are not unified over the role technology should play in congressional operations during the pandemic. Many lawmakers think technology could be the solution to allow remote voting. But concerns about cybersecurity, testing and the constitutionality led Rules Chairman Jim McGovern to move forward with a low-tech proxy solution. 

“While any distance-voting is less optimal than in-person voting or debating in committee or on the floor of the House, the sound and image of the member doing so virtually is far superior to the utilization of proxies,” Hoyer wrote.

North Carolina Democrat G.K. Butterfield was at the Capitol on Tuesday for a House pro forma session and said the Democratic Caucus isn’t in favor of allowing members to directly vote from home.

“We’ve talked about it, and there are many, many challenges pertaining to voting from home, and we’re not there yet,” Butterfield said. 

Hoyer has been more of an advocate for remove voting than Pelosi. She has cited security and constitutional concerns; Hoyer has argued that videoconferencing makes it possible to see and hear votes being cast and that could counterbalance vulnerabilities to manipulation.

“There are various views,” Hoyer said when asked if he and Pelosi disagreed on remote voting.

Under McGovern’s proposal, members would be able to submit their proxy vote directions electronically, which could be “subject to the same kind of security concerns,” Hoyer said, as videoconferencing services such as FaceTime, Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Throughout Tuesday, key party leaders on both sides of the aisle said they hadn’t seen text of any proposal; Hoyer told reporters on a conference call the substance was still being worked out and could change before hitting the floor.

He said any initiation of proxy voting would be done “at the very least with consultation with the minority leadership.”

“We don’t want that to be perceived as a partisan — trying to get some partisan gain by providing for that alternative,” Hoyer said.

But House Republicans say they’ve been shut out of the process. 

House Administration ranking member Rodney Davis told CQ Roll Call he’s had no success at having conversations across the aisle about emergency voting measures, both on the staff level and member level.

“I was certainly looking forward to having a debate on what a long-term remote voting system could look like for the House,” the Illinois lawmaker said in an interview Tuesday.

In addition to being the top Republican on House Administration, Davis also serves on the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. He said the panels, both known for bipartisan action, haven’t gotten together for meaningful deliberation of proxy voting, adding that Democratic leaders had “no intention of being bipartisan.”

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The pushback

As part of their pushback, Republicans warned of corrupt implementation and erosion of the representative process. 

“What are the details of this proposal, how will it avoid potential abuses of power, and when do you expect this proposal to be made public for the necessary scrutiny and member input that changing 200 years of House precedent would merit?” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wrote in a letter to Pelosi on Tuesday.

Those were among the more diplomatic comments.

“It’s a terrible idea,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan said Tuesday of proxy voting. “You meet in person, you debate and you vote in person.”

Louisiana Rep. Clay Higgins argued that proxy voting “is completely outside of what the founders intended.”

“When significant measures are considered that impact the entire country, I believe that Congress should be in session, and we should be held accountable,” he said.

While Democratic leaders say they want bipartisan backing, they could pass it without Republicans. 

“The Democrats got the majority. If they want to do it, they can do it,” Jordan said. “We’ve just got to make the argument, do the best we can, but if they’re determined to do it, and they have the votes, obviously they can, they can get it done.”

Members will make their own decision about whether to return to Washington to vote Thursday.

Hoyer told reporters that congressional leaders “are asking every member to return who can return, and we hope that that is a large number.”

He acknowledged that some members who are caring for family members or are themselves highly vulnerable to COVID-19 may be unable to travel to Washington.

“We’re not ordering members to come back, but we do expect sufficient members to come back so we can have a quorum,” Hoyer said.

Committees contingencies

Hoyer said he would talk to McCarthy and added that committee heads were talking to ranking members about options for operating remotely.

“I believe we need to put procedures in place to allow remote voting and — and I emphasize — remote committee work,” Hoyer said.

[Organizations push for remote floor and committee debate, not just voting]

Davis expressed doubt about the implementation of a digital committee process that lacks input from Republicans as well as the offices on Capitol Hill that will be tasked with making it work. 

“How are you going to create a digital process that works with existing House infrastructure?” he said.

In his letter to Pelosi, McCarthy expressed frustration at the lack of a plan on overall operations during the crisis, in particular marking up legislation such as the fiscal 2021 spending bills and the National Defense Authorization Act.

McCarthy had suggestions for how to resume committee activity while still practicing social distancing and other public health recommendations. Those included staggering committee meeting days, and not using some of the more cramped committee spaces but instead rotating the use of larger hearing rooms.  

“It is imperative we outline a pathway forward that ensures transparency and regular order for all members — not centralized decision-making by a select group of leadership and staff that reduces the role of representative to merely voting ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on pre-drafted proposals,” McCarthy wrote.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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