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End of proxy option drives increase in missed House votes

Participation set records when colleagues could vote for someone absent

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., seen leaving the Capitol with husband, Andrew Gamberzky, in July, has proposed allowing proxy voting after a member gives birth to a child.
Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., seen leaving the Capitol with husband, Andrew Gamberzky, in July, has proposed allowing proxy voting after a member gives birth to a child. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected Jan. 30 | After setting records in 2021 and 2022 when members could ask colleagues to vote for them, the rate of House members casting votes dropped back to a more normal 96.9 percent last year, CQ Roll Call Vote Studies found.

Without the benefit of proxy voting, instituted as an emergency response in May 2020 to the COVID-19 pandemic, the participation rate of House members dropped from their record high of 97.8 percent in 2021 and 2022.

While 42 members could claim perfect participation rates in 2022 — the final year allowing them to designate proxy members to vote on their behalf — that total dropped to 18 in 2023.

“The pendulum has swung all the way back to you either show up in person to vote or you miss the vote,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution. 

House Republicans unsuccessfully tried to get federal courts to throw out the proxy system when they were in the minority, and members were using the practice liberally at the end of 2022, well after vaccines were widely available that danger of spreading the virus. The GOP followed through on a promise to scrap the practice after taking control of the chamber a year ago.

Reynolds said it was unlikely the House would return to a proxy system until the practice is unrelated to COVID-19.

Though the Republican majority has been opposed to voting by proxy, one of their own has suggested a revival of sorts. A rule change proposed by freshman Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla. would permit lawmakers to vote by proxy for up to six weeks after giving birth. In the weeks following her childbirth, which included complications of a four-day fever and infection, Luna remained in Florida and missed 137 votes.

Democrats have also proposed allowing for proxy voting when members are ill, a situation that has further constrained the narrow Republican majority with Majority Leader Steve Scalise saying he won’t be in Washington for votes this month while he is receiving cancer treatment in his home state of Louisiana. 

The House in 2023 called the most votes — 719 in total — since 2011, the last time the Republicans gained control and opened the board 945 times. But not all votes are created equal. 

“Having a lot of votes in this case is not indicative of a lot of choices over real policy,” noted Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University. Rather, he said it was a result “of the Republican Party sort of at war with itself over its own leadership.”

Green pointed to a number of circumstances last year contributing to the chamber’s vote total, including lengthy speakership battles, failed rule votes and re-votes.

Senate participation steady

Senators participated on an average 95.6 percent of the 352 Senate roll call votes cast in 2023, with nine members casting all 352 votes. While that scores roughly the same amount as 2022’s participation, many of the lowest vote scores came from some of the Senate’s most high-profile power players.

Two months after becoming the longest-serving party leader, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fell and suffered a concussion in March that left him sidelined for a month. He missed the most votes of his entire four-decade Senate career in 2023, weighing in on 90.6 percent of the recorded floor votes.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., voted on 81 percent of the votes as he missed time to be with his wife, Bobbi, who died last week after a two-year battle with brain cancer.

On the Democratic side, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois also had a career low, casting votes 87.2 percent of the time. The longtime senator was sidelined by a series of health issues, including testing positive for COVID-19 multiple times and having his left knee surgically replaced in October.

Before her death in September, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, missed just over half her eligible votes. The longest-serving Senate Democrat, Feinstein’s absences, especially from the Judiciary Committee she once chaired, stalled a number of nominations because it kept the Democrats from having a majority. Republicans refused to allow Democrats to replace her temporarily on the committee, and some of her fellow Democrats called for her resignation.

Freshman Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., voted 75.3 percent of the time and was among the most junior members of the Senate to take an extended leave of absence. Fetterman was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment for depression in February.

Experts noted that Fetterman’s absence marked a change in how Congress views mental health. Green said the bipartisan support for Fetterman illuminated how lawmakers caring for their mental health are now on par with seeking treatment for physical ailments, whereas in previous years it may have been considered a vulnerability.

Slow quitting to run elsewhere

Most of the members missing numerous votes were vying for for different jobs. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., voted 66.5 percent of the time last year, much of which he was contending for the Republican presidential nomination.

On the House side, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee missed the most votes as she vied, unsuccessfully, to become mayor of Houston. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., was not far off, voting 72.9 percent of the time while campaigning against President Joe Biden for the party’s presidential nomination.

By tradition, House speakers seldom cast votes. And in 2023, two former speakers continued to participate less than most of their colleagues.

Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., voted 87.6 percent of the time. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., made it to only 66.2 percent of votes after being ousted from the speakership on Oct. 3, despite no longer being in leadership or having committee assignments. McCarthy ultimately resigned from Congress on the last day of 2023.

Green noted McCarthy had an opportunity as the first ousted speaker in U.S. history to set a historical precedent: “He decided that a newly vacated speaker will not really vote much and then quit.”

This report has been corrected to adjust the 2023 participation rate, reflect that the number of House members with perfect attendance scores is 18, and add Womack and Fitzpatrick to the list of members with perfect attendance scores.

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