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Virus aid bill and proxy voting readied for House action

Marathon Rules Committee hearing focused mostly on proxy voting

House lawmakers flocked back to Washington ahead of Friday votes on trillions of dollars in coronavirus aid and approval of the most consequential change to the House voting process in more than 40 years.

The House Rules Committee voted along party lines Thursday night to send to the floor a rule for consideration of the $3 trillion coronavirus bill and a resolution to change House rules to allow for proxy voting and remote committee proceedings.

The rule, approved 8-4, would provide for consideration of a bill that would provide almost $916 billion in direct aid to state and local governments and additional funds for aid to hospitals and for national testing. The measure would also provide assistance for the U.S. Postal Service and to prepare for the November elections.

The sweeping measure would provide another round of cash payments to families, housing assistance, more loans to businesses, medical research funding, an extension of expanded unemployment insurance benefits, tax breaks and more.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey touted the nearly $1 trillion in aid for cash-strapped states and local governments.

“So they can keep our heroes — first responders health workers, teachers and other public servants — paid and working for us,” said Lowey.

The Democratic effort seems aligned with comments this week from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who urged Congress to continue pumping money into the economy.

“Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery,” said Powell.

But Republicans want to slow down and take stock of how previous economic rescue efforts are working, saying that the bipartisan $2 trillion package passed last month isn’t fully distributed yet.

Rules ranking member Tom Cole, who is also an appropriator, said the bill is a missed opportunity for collaboration on what federal response is needed for next steps as the coronavirus crisis continues to hammer the U.S. economy.

He said that House Republicans would be ready to work with Democrats to pass another bipartisan relief bill “if and when” one is needed.

“Today it’s not clear if we even need another bill, much less what should be in it,” said Cole.

There is not unanimous support among Democrats for the measure, either. Oklahoma Democrat Kendra Horn announced Wednesday that she’s voting against the bill, urging bipartisan cooperation on the next round of coronavirus economic response legislation.

“We must work with our Republican colleagues and leadership in the Senate to negotiate a targeted relief bill that is aimed squarely at the health and economic challenges we face,” Horn said in a statement.

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The Rules Committee squeezed discussion of the multi-trillion dollar aid package at the end of a daylong meeting, the vast majority of which was spent debating the question of proxy voting in the House.

The nine-member panel again met in the spacious Ways and Means hearing room in the Longworth House Office Building to accommodate social distancing, instead of in the cramped Rules Committee quarters on the third floor of the Capitol.

“My preference is that members retain their face covers when speaking, as speaking as an activity which can release virus particles — especially if the speaking is of a high spirited nature,” said House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, quoting guidance from the attending physician.

Milestone rules change

The House will also vote Friday on a milestone change to the chamber’s rules that would temporarily allow members to vote by proxy on legislation brought to the floor and to permit committees to use technology to hold official business meetings.

“I regret very much that we are not coming here today with a proposal that both our leaderships embrace,” said McGovern.

The resolution introduced Wednesday was not born out of the bipartisan Virtual Congress Task Force established in April, which was set up after a previous proxy voting effort floundered. Task force members on both sides of the aisle commended the group and said there was productive discussion and a good faith effort.

“I commend every member of the committee, because I think they all worked that way and tried to find common ground,” said Cole. “In this case, we just simply didn’t get there.”

The proposed change would allow an absent lawmaker to designate a colleague to vote on House floor matters on the member’s behalf by sending a letter electronically to the House clerk with exact instruction on how to vote on each question on the floor.

The resolution would authorize House committees to hold virtual hearings, markups and depositions using software platforms approved by the chief administrative officer for remote participation.

The rule change would be temporary and would only last 45 days before needing to be renewed. It would not extend beyond the 116th Congress, which ends in January.

“And I am not looking to change the fabric of this institution. I believe the best ideas still come from working in person and side by side. We must adapt to this extraordinary circumstance and make temporary changes during this pandemic,” said McGovern.

At a press conference while Rules was still debating the proxy voting measure, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the unprecedented and widespread impact of the pandemic has spurred this rule change proposal.

“I see it is the wonderful entrepreneurial dynamic of the House for us to say in a circumstance that was totally unforeseen, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before that is not only an economic disaster but has personal risk that we would have the opportunity to have remote voting by proxy,” said Pelosi. 

She stressed the limited 45 day window and said it was not rooted in any desire to change the institution of the House.

“It is in keeping with the vitality of the House that we are doing this, not in opposition to the traditions of the House,” said Pelosi.

If adopted, the House rules change to allow proxy voting would be the most significant update to voting procedures since the elimination of “teller votes” in 1971 and the debut of the current electronic voting system in 1973.

Those physically present would be eligible to cast votes on behalf of their colleagues, with a member limited to serving as a designated proxy for a maximum of 10 members.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told the committee that the capped number of proxy designations was one idea from Republicans on the task force that was included in the measure, in addition to the prohibition of committees conducting executive sessions virtually.

Republicans are against the proxy voting and remote committee proceedings rule change and GOP leadership is whipping votes against the resolution ahead of Friday’s vote.

“I’m deeply concerned about the precedent that sets for the institution,” said Cole. “Even a temporary measure to deal with the current crisis, could be used to establish precedent for something else down the line.”

Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, testified against the rule change, citing constitutional questions and logistical issues.

“I have confidence in the clerk, the chief information officer and the professionals on their teams. However, it is unfair to them and puts the institution at risk by not first listening to them, mitigating risks and testing the process extensively,” said Davis.

Davis raised concern that proxy voting would be corrupted and abused, as it had been on the committee level in the past before it was eliminated in 1994.

McGovern acknowledged that the general proxy provided before 1994, which gave committee chairmen outsized influence and no specific instructions from absent members, was problematic.

“We all agree it was not a good standard,” said McGovern.

But he was quick to emphasize that the resolution heading to the floor Friday would not provide a general proxy and would require specific instructions for each vote.

The committee rejected more than 30 amendments from Republicans on the panel that would have limited the legislation proxy votes could be used for or reduced members’ travel accounts if they were to vote by proxy.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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