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Could proxy voting make the House more inclusive? Some lawmakers hope so

‘I want everybody to be able to participate,’ Rules Chairman Jim McGovern said

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, argued in favor of keeping some limited proxy voting in the House.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, argued in favor of keeping some limited proxy voting in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“When my son graduated from college, I remember praying,” Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar told the House Rules Committee during a hearing Thursday. 

She hoped the event wouldn’t fall on a day when she was scheduled to be in Washington. Thankfully, she got lucky and was able to attend, she said.

But Capitol Hill has never been family friendly, Rep. Linda T. Sánchez said. “Congress wasn’t built for working mothers, and it really shows,” she said. 

When she was pregnant in 2009, she decided to have her child in Washington instead of California, so she could be ready to come to the House chamber and vote two weeks after her cesarean section. Sánchez is one of just 11 members who have ever given birth while serving in Congress.

Democrats shared those stories and more as they argued to extend and reimagine two things that have helped the House weather the coronavirus pandemic — proxy voting and remote hearings. Those practices are set to expire March 30.    

If proxy voting had existed a decade ago, Sánchez could have appointed one of her colleagues to vote in her place, instead of dragging herself out of bed. It’s “ironic” that a global pandemic has finally forced Congress to change, she said. 

Republicans pushed back during the marathon “members’ day” hearing, which gave a broad range of lawmakers the chance to sound off on how the House should operate as the pandemic wanes. Things should return to normal, they said.

Rep. Chip Roy of Texas said he’s missed a lot of his son’s baseball games and special events over the years. But lawmaking isn’t a typical 9-to-5, and he embraces the sacrifice.

“It’s our job. It’s our obligation. And if you can’t do it, think about not running again. Think about resigning,” he said.

Others said remote work is ripe for abuse, blamed it for contributing to a toxic culture in Congress, and raised questions of constitutionality.

GOP Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois pointed out that the new rules were always supposed to be temporary. As the coronavirus swept across the country, the Democratic majority passed a resolution to allow proxy voting and remote committee work in the House during a public health emergency. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has extended the covered period every 45 days since May 2020.   

The Senate did not follow suit. Instead, it required members to cast floor votes in person. 

Davis argued that members of Congress need to be in the same room to strike deals and shouldn’t be able to “phone it in,” especially in the days of a “fading” pandemic. 

“I have countless examples of me working in a bipartisan way with my colleagues who I’ve gotten to know,” Davis said. “That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have the chance to actually socialize.” 

Proxy voting is tearing the fabric of the institution apart, he said. 

When Rep. Joe Neguse got his turn to ask questions, he tried to deflate that rhetoric. “I think the notion that it has destroyed the institution is a bit much,” he said.

The Colorado Democrat was appearing remotely, thanks to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in recent days. While everyone else — the Rules Committee and 16 witnesses — showed up in person Thursday, Neguse was in isolation.

Chairman Jim McGovern said it was just one example of how remote work has helped the House keep functioning during the pandemic. “I want everybody to be able to participate,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

In 2021, 204 Democrats and 147 Republicans used the rules to designate a voting proxy, casting a combined 17,314 proxy votes, a CQ Roll Call analysis found. The votes, which allowed for the highest amount of participation since Congressional Quarterly began tracking participation in 1953, accounted for 9.1 percent of all votes cast in the House. 

But Davis, the ranking member of the House Administration panel, was quick to remind members that many had used the pandemic as an excuse to work remotely for other reasons. He cited examples of lawmakers calling into hearings from their cars, beds, vacation homes and even a boat. 

Rep. Mike Gallagher didn’t mince words. “It’s exacerbating a lack of trust in the institution because so many members are lying,” the Wisconsin Republican said. 

Before they can vote by proxy, members must sign a form that says they are unable to physically attend proceedings in the House due to the “ongoing public health emergency.” Yet some have used proxy voting for reasons that have nothing to do with the coronavirus, he said — like enjoying “a longer weekend.”

Gallagher accused both parties of abusing the practice. Republicans were initially united in their opposition to proxy voting. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and 160 other Republican members challenged its constitutionality, escalating the battle all the way to the Supreme Court.

By the time the high court declined to hear the case, almost all those members had dropped off the lawsuit, and many had voted by proxy themselves.

Clearly, things have changed since the early days of the pandemic. “I’m happy to have the different argument about proxy voting for other reasons,” Gallagher said, though he would still oppose it.

That’s exactly the kind of discussion that Democrats want to have. As the March 30 expiration date looms, Democrats have a choice to make — renew the public health emergency, allow the provisions to end and return to business as usual, or change the rules to allow for proxy voting and remote hearings outside the confines of COVID-19.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland argued that Congress needs to get with the times and leverage technology. McGovern agreed, saying America should keep up with other parliaments around the world. Remote hearings bring in a broader range of witnesses, he said, allowing experts from far-flung or underrepresented groups to testify before Congress even if they can’t afford to make the trip. 

Both Democrats and Republicans “see value in that,” he said. “I do too, personally. I think there’s something to be said for that.” 

McGovern said he doesn’t have a legislative fix in mind. Instead, he saw Thursday’s hearing as the first step in a “serious conversation.” 

As Escobar made the case for using remote tools to build a more inclusive Congress, she was among the few members to make a concrete proposal.

Each member should get an allotted number of days to vote by proxy, she suggested, much like some workers in America get sick leave or personal days. That way, they could still do the people’s business while responding to a natural disaster, raising a family or simply living life.

“If they want to spend those 20 days attending in-district events, saving it for sick days, or saving it for special occasions  … that should be the member’s prerogative,” she said.

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