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Thank goodness it’s fly-out day: Proxy voting rises when Congress smells jet fumes

What’s next for the pandemic-era voting system?

Members of Congress stream down the House steps after the final votes of the week in the Capitol on February 9. On days when members are scheduled to leave or arrive in Washington, the number of members voting by proxy increases.
Members of Congress stream down the House steps after the final votes of the week in the Capitol on February 9. On days when members are scheduled to leave or arrive in Washington, the number of members voting by proxy increases. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A line of idling cars quietly rumbled near the House steps last Friday, ready to whisk lawmakers back to the campaign trail and away from Washington until after the midterm elections.

And some of them left sooner than others, even as the chamber worked to finish some key business, like avoiding a government shutdown and compensating families of 9/11 victims. Nearly 75 members cast their final vote of the day by proxy.

It’s part of a pattern on days when members are scheduled to fly in or out of town.

On so-called fly-out days, an average of 62 House members vote by proxy, while an average of 57 members vote by proxy on fly-in days, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of data collected by the Brookings Institution, looking at every vote so far in the 117th Congress.

On the rare days when members are called back from their districts for a one-day voting session, like when the Democrats’ passed a reconciliation bill during the August recess, the number spikes even higher, with an average of 141 members voting by proxy. 

By comparison, an average of 41 members vote by proxy on days that are neither fly-in or fly-out days. 

“There’s no question that some people have taken advantage of the system, in both parties,” said House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern

Changing the rules

Proxy voting was never meant to make lawmakers’ jobs more convenient — only safer. Adopted at the height of the pandemic, the practice allows members on the House side of the Capitol to designate a colleague to vote on their behalf. But first, they must swear they can’t attend in person because of COVID-19.

They sign a letter stating they are “unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.” The letters are then logged by staff in the House Clerk’s office and posted to the web

Among the members voting by proxy last Friday was Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 House Republican. While she showed up in person for part of the day, Stefanik used a proxy to cast two of her four votes.

The New York Republican recently helped unveil her party’s platform for the next Congress, which includes a promise to ban remote voting if the GOP retakes the chamber.

One of Stefanik’s proxy votes was against sending to the president’s desk what she called Speaker Nancy “Pelosi’s partisan spending bill” in a Friday press release. Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment on why she voted by proxy, and her public schedule listed only “House votes” and “constituent calls.” 

Republicans loudly complained about proxy voting in the early days, even filing a lawsuit to challenge its constitutionality. Some have stuck to their guns, but many have used the practice themselves.

In the meantime, Pelosi has reupped the proxy voting system every 45 days since May 2020, with the latest renewal on Sept. 23. While COVID-19 has not gone away, key Democrats acknowledge that the landscape looks nothing like it did at first, when there were no vaccines, flights were grounded and lawmakers aimed to pass emergency funding without getting sick.

McGovern said he can see changes to the system that would cut down on its use as a convenience instead of a necessity. 

“There needs to be more transparency at a minimum,” he said. “If you’re not going to be here, you ought to state the reason why you’re not going to be here and not use the cover of COVID.”

Other lawmakers said the practice has the potential to make the House a more inclusive place. Rep. Linda T. Sánchez testified at a March Rules hearing that she could have benefitted from proxy voting after giving birth to a child.

McGovern said he’s not ready to start thinking about whether a potentially GOP-led House would include some kind of proxy rules, but Rules’ ranking member Tom Cole said it’s not likely.

“I’ll do whatever our leadership comes down on, but I don’t like proxy voting,” he said. “I think it’s bad for the institution.” 

The Oklahoma Republican argued that having members in Washington to debate bills and hold hearings in person increases collaboration, and blamed the practice for contributing to a toxic culture in Congress.

“If you’re not willing to make the sacrifices that it takes to be here, you shouldn’t be running,” Cole said.

Though most Republicans in Congress indicate a willingness to dump the system entirely, some suggested they would be open to a narrow set of exceptions.

“There’s a way maybe,” said Texas GOP Rep. John Carter. “I had a tornado situation at my house and I was out for quite a while. And I was grateful for proxy voting.” 

Schedule struggles

Whatever else it is, proxy voting is undeniably good for participation. House members on average participated in a record 98 percent of votes taken this year, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis. 

Despite the fact that it’s an election year — typically a factor lowering total participation — that rate slightly edged out the previous record set in 2021. It’s the highest rate of vote participation in the House since 1953, when Congressional Quarterly first began tracking this trend. 

Members may not be voting in person, but at least they are voting, some advocates say. Others point out that before the advent of proxy voting, members had to decide: cast votes or attend an event. Now they can do both. 

“It takes what used to be a difficult choice about how to allocate your time and makes it a less difficult one,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings. 

The debate over the practice has shed light on preexisting problems in Congress, like the tricky scheduling dance that members face. With some districts hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Washington, late or unexpected votes can mess with travel plans.

“There are some things that proxy voting is illustrating for us that are broader challenges facing the Congress,” Reynolds said. “This is just one place where we see them come into stark relief.”

Deconflicting schedules for lawmakers, who typically work in Washington Tuesday through Thursday, has been a special topic of interest for the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress this year. The panel has tried to find ways to create a new scheduling system aimed at reducing double bookings. 

Reynolds, who cataloged the publicly available data on proxy votes’ fly-in and fly-out days, said the window is closing to decide on a future for proxy voting.

“There’s a different, better world where the House figures out a way to do this that respects the institution of the House and the needs of the members,” she said. “But the more it gets abused,  the harder it is to make that argument.” 

I’m voting, sorry

At the end of July, some members headed out early as jet fumes — congressional parlance for the antsy atmosphere as vacation nears — started wafting into the House chamber ahead of August recess. That included Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee.

With two votes left to go on July 29, C-SPAN cameras caught someone who was wearing the same clothes that Cohen had on when he spoke on the House floor earlier that day near the dais taking a sheet of paper from House staff and scrawling something on it. 

After finishing up what he was writing, he could be seen conferring with someone off-camera and giving them a thumbs up before walking out of the frame toward the back of the chamber. 

For the rest of the day, Cohen’s votes were cast by Rep. Don Beyer, whom Cohen designated in a handwritten proxy letter bearing his signature. Cohen was one of a group of absentee voters that grew to 120 members by the end of that day.

When asked about the handwritten proxy letter in September, Cohen demurred. His office also did not respond to a request for comment. 

“I’m voting, sorry,” he told reporters when asked about that day. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Beyer has been a proxy for many members over the past couple years — he represents a district just across the Potomac River, so he never has to make a mad dash to the airport to catch a plane. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s thrilled with proxy voting in its current form.

“There’s probably a middle ground that would be responsible,” the Virginia Democrat said. “I’m in favor of the pandemic being over and getting rid of pandemic voting.”

But until the House changes the system, Beyer said he’d continue voting for other members without asking too many questions.

“I don’t feel like I should be the arbiter,” he said. “I’m not that holy.”

Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.

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