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House Democrats push for proxy voting when illness impedes attendance

Lawmakers have missed votes this year for cancer surgery and hospitalizations

Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C.
Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Twice in the first six months of the 118th Congress Rep. Deborah K. Ross has found herself sidelined at home.

In April, the North Carolina Democrat’s husband went into cardiac arrest and was hospitalized. Ross needed to be at his bedside and missed the better part of two weeks as a result. And in May, she caught COVID-19 for a second time, which caused her to miss the vote on the debt ceiling package.

In the previous Congress, Ross would’ve been able to cast votes by proxy and participate in committee proceedings remotely. But Republican changes to House rules this year ended both provisions.

Ross, along with four of her House Democratic colleagues, is seeking to change those rules and once again allow proxy voting and remote committee participation under certain circumstances.

“Of course we’re going to try to get here no matter what, but we have medical emergencies, just like our constituents do,” Ross told CQ Roll Call ahead of her plan on Thursday to introduce a House resolution that would amend the rules. “I think if we narrow it from what it was before, and limit it to particular medical situations or family medical situations, we can both serve our constituents, protect ourselves and protect others.”

The resolution would change House rules to allow proxy voting if a member, spouse or dependent of a member is experiencing a serious medical condition, including any pregnancy-related condition. It would also allow members to participate in meetings remotely with a doctor’s note, according to the resolution text.

Reps. Sara Jacobs of California, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, Linda T. Sánchez of California and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey will co-sponsor the resolution.

In the early days of the pandemic, when Democrats controlled the House, party leaders changed rules to allow members to participate remotely in floor votes and committee meetings. The rule change was meant as an accommodation for members sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses. But both parties acknowledge the provision was exploited.

More than half of the House voted by proxy on the final big vote series of the year on Christmas Eve last year, which included the $1.7 billion omnibus package. 

An average of 62 House members voted by proxy on so-called fly-out days and 57 members on average voted by proxy on fly-in days, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of data collected by the Brookings Institution looking at every vote in the 117th Congress up to October 2022.

When Republicans took back control of the House in the 118th Congress, they quashed proxy voting and remote participation in committee hearings. Some, including House Rules Chairman Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, argued that both provisions may have contributed to Congress’ problem of partisan polarization, as lawmakers weren’t interacting face-to-face. 

“The COVID emergency is over, so I think the American people expect us to show up to work,” Cole told CQ Roll Call earlier this year. “Everybody else shows up to work. I think members of Congress should as well.”

But COVID-19, cancer and simple accidents have all sidelined lawmakers this year, resulting in votes and hearings missed.

Florida Republican Rep. Greg Steube was hospitalized in January after falling from a ladder and missed nearly two months. Democrat Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas and Angie Craig of Minnesota both missed votes after undergoing surgery — Castro to remove a cancerous tumor and Craig to repair an ankle injury suffered doing yard work.

Ross and other supporters of the resolution also contend the lack of proxy voting could also potentially be discriminatory toward women who are pregnant or young mothers.

Sánchez, who in 2009 became just the eighth member of the House in U.S. history to give birth while in office, spoke at a 2022 Rules Committee member day hearing about the challenges of being pregnant while serving in the Congress.

Though her friends and families lived more than 2,000 miles away in California, Sánchez said she opted to give birth in D.C. because it would make it easier to get quickly back to work.

She intended to take four weeks of maternity leave to recover from a cesarean section, but instead returned after just two to cast a vote on an important bill. 

“I wonder how many of you after a major surgery, in which you have stitches and are told by your doctor bed rest for two to three weeks is recommended, would drag yourself out of bed to come to work and cast an important vote,” Sánchez told the committee at the time.

Even still, Ross said Republican leadership remains hostile to proxy voting. Support from across the aisle is unlikely, despite calls from supporters to utilize available technology to increase participation. 

“We should be doing everything possible to modernize Congress and make it more inclusive and accessible to all people — whether they’re parents, soon-to-be parents, dealing with a serious medical issue, or caring for a loved one,” Jacobs said in a statement.

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