Republicans may think they put proxy voting in its grave when they changed House rules in 1995 to ban it in committees. But the issue resurfaced last month when a dispute arose in the Democratic Caucus over Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth's request to vote by proxy in caucus elections because she was about to give birth to her first child.
Three months ago another Democrat, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California urged the Rules Committee to put forward a new House rule permitting members to cast their floor votes electronically from their districts on non-controversial bills early in the week.
Some younger members are so attuned to high-tech solutions in their daily lives that they are beginning to think democratic decision-making can be carried-out more efficiently using electronic joy sticks. Why should elected representatives need to be in a particular place at a certain time to vote when they can more easily decide the matter remotely? What better way to eliminate hyper-partisan debates than to keep members out of each others' faces? In the Democratic Caucus brouhaha, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi bucked an angry tide of emotions and correctly ruled that the caucus is governed by House rules that do not permit proxy voting on the floor. To make an exception, Pelosi argued, would create a slippery slope over handling future requests.
House and Senate committees allowed proxy voting almost from the beginning of the Republic, though originally only by unanimous consent. Banning proxy voting in committees was long a goal of House Republicans while in the minority. They were continuously frustrated in committee meetings where they outnumbered Democrats, only to be outvoted by a committee chairman pulling paper proxies from his pocket.
In 1970, the House voted to ban proxy voting as part of a bipartisan legislative reorganization act, only to have the decision overturned at the beginning of the next Congress when the Democratic Caucus controlled the adoption of House rules on opening day. A similar thing happened in 1974 when House approval of a proxy-voting ban in a bipartisan committee reform resolution was reversed at the outset of the next Congress in 1975.
Finally, in 1995, Republicans took control of the House and made good on their longstanding promise to do away with proxy voting. When Democrats briefly retook control (2007-2010) they retained the proxy-voting ban in committees. A Senate rule allows committees to use proxy voting if they choose, and every Senate standing committee does so.
Neither chamber permits proxy voting on the floor, though with the advent of electronic voting in the House in 1972, some members tried it anyway. An ethics investigation nailed the scofflaws who were handing off their voting cards in the House gym to willing accomplices to vote for them.
The House still has an arcane, rarely used rule permitting “live pair” voting on the floor whereby a member in the Chamber changes his vote to “present” and announces his pair with an absent member on the other side of the question. Neither vote counts toward the final tally. Members who miss votes may also later announce from the floor how they would have voted had they been present, and their statements appear in the Congressional Record.
The main argument against proxy voting in committee over the years was that it detracted from the importance of members being present to engage in actual give-and-take deliberations before final decisions are made on amendments or on reporting a bill. However, the House changed its rules in 2003 to permit chairmen to postpone recorded votes in committee until a time-certain, much as the House now postpones and clusters floor votes until later in the day.
That disconnect between debate and voting amounts to two strikes against deliberation — one in committee, the other on the floor. The disappearance of House-Senate conference committees to iron out differences between the two bodies is strike three against deliberation, as party leaders have increasingly taken over the game, converting it from a team sport into one-on-one amendment ping-pong matches with their counterparts in the other body.
The new Congress will tell the tale of whether party leaders are really serious about wanting to return to a “regular order” over which they would have less control. So far, the talk has been encouraging from the newly-elected House and Senate majority leaders. Now let’s see if their walk matches their words.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.