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Hoyer wants votes to run on strict schedule, but it’s easier said than done

Former Speaker Paul D. Ryan tried, and failed, to enforce a strict time limit on votes

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, wants to enforce time limits on House votes.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, wants to enforce time limits on House votes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced Thursday that he planned to soon start enforcing 45-minute time limits on votes, but history shows that efforts to gavel a vote to a close after a designated period of time have been unsuccessful.

“I wanted to announce to every member that I will be recommending that we close votes 45 minutes after they start,” the Maryland Democrat said in floor remarks.

Hoyer banged his fist on the podium in front of him and then said aloud for emphasis, “Bang!”

His announcement came after the House spent more than an hour voting on a dilatory motion to adjourn from Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was protesting the LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill the chamber was preparing to vote on. Greene’s motion was rejected 199-219.

In pre-pandemic times, most House votes were technically limited to 15 minutes. But as any C-SPAN viewer knows, once the 15 minutes elapsed, the official gavel down to close the vote would not come for minutes afterward — sometimes more than doubling the initial allotted time.

The soft 15-minute limit on votes was quickly done away with during the pandemic to allow for social distancing. House leaders, advised by the Office of the Attending Physician for the Capitol and House sergeant-at-arms, created alphabetic voting groups so members would show up to the floor at staggered times and not crowd the chamber.

The effort to limit crowding in the chamber, like voting time limits, has not always gone as planned. But it has been consistently successful in at least one thing: significantly lengthening votes.

Hoyer said that under the current design, with seven voting groups scheduled to come to come to the floor in five-minute intervals, votes should not need to last longer than 40 minutes: the 35-minute total allotment for the seven groups, plus a five-minute interval for members who miss their group time for whatever reason.

But lately, many votes have lasted 20 to 35 minutes beyond the 40 that the vote structure envisioned, Hoyer said. Noting he’s talked to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the majority leader said 45 minutes after the bell rings signaling the start of a vote, “I want that gavel to come down.”

“Now that cannot be a real burden on anybody. Cannot,” Hoyer said.

For members serving as proxies for colleagues who don’t feel comfortable voting in person during the pandemic, the need to be punctual is even more important, Hoyer emphasized.

“Not only do you have a responsibility to yourself to vote in a timely fashion, but if you miss the vote acting in a fiduciary capacity for another member who can’t be here because of health-related issues and you do not vote, that will not be a happy situation,” he said.

Hoyer said he plans to send a notice to formally implement the time limit once he confers with Pelosi but that the time limit could start as soon as later Thursday.

“This is not to penalize anybody,” he said. “It is, however, to try to run this institute in a way that members’ time, which is valuable, is respected.”

Hoyer’s speech received a few cheers from members in the chamber, and it sounded official. But there was a noteworthy caveat in his remarks, as he said, “I want that gavel to come down” after 45 minutes.

Hoyer and Pelosi do not preside over the House regularly. The job of chair is fulfilled by a rotating cast of rank-and-file members, and they are the ones who have to actually close the votes.

While those members take instructions from leadership and staff, most are not very strict about enforcing the rules. And declining to hold a vote open for a colleague who is on the way to the floor certainly won’t win you any favors.

Hoyer need only look back a few years to see how a prior effort to enforce strict time limits on votes epically failed.

Former Speaker Paul D. Ryan came into power in late 2015 after John A. Boehner resigned, and he planned to enforce the normal 15-minute time limit on votes. But the effort didn’t last long, with members still struggling to show up on time and getting upset if they missed the opportunity to vote.

One notable moment came on Jan. 13, 2016, early in Ryan’s time as speaker, when a timely gavel to close a vote on a bill to tighten oversight of the Iran nuclear sanctions program left more than a quarter of the House on the “not voting” list. The bill passed 191-106, but 137 members, including 55 from Ryan’s Republican Conference, missed the vote.

Ryan was trying to show members the consequences of not being punctual, but it backfired, as members of his own party demanded a do-over. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the current top House Republican who was then Ryan’s No. 2, asked unanimous consent that the vote be vacated, and it was rescheduled for Jan. 26.

Hoyer said on the floor at the time that he appreciated Ryan’s vote-on-time policy, but he also welcomed the redo on the Iran vote — showing that enforcing the time limit wasn’t as important as members getting the opportunity to be on the record on an important policy.

“This was an extraordinarily important vote,” he said. “Members on both sides missed it, and I appreciate the majority leader’s action and the speaker’s agreement to it to accommodate our members.”

That was then.