Ahead of a week where voting logistics could be tested in real time, a dozen organizations are urging Congress to enable remote deliberations for House floor and committee action and for Congress to invest in its own technology to make remote governing more feasible.
Last week, House leaders proposed a temporary rules change to allow proxy voting, which would allow an absent member to designate a colleague to vote on their behalf. But organizations across the political spectrum are saying that remote voting may not go far enough, when it is unclear when Congress will be able to safely convene regularly as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
“We understand the reluctance of some Members of the House to amend or temporarily suspend particular rules, but we believe it is preferable to have a remote Congress than no Congress,” reads a letter the group sent to congressional leaders Monday.
Signatories to the letter include the conservative R Street Institute and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, alongside former Democratic Rep. Brain Baird and the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Government transparency advocates at Demand Progress, GovTrack and Marci Harris of PopVox joined the progressive Courage Campaign to sign onto the letter, among others.
The organizations would like to see the House adopt rules and procedures to allow for full deliberations, not just votes, in a remote capacity.
“While House Democrats’ proposed proxy voting scheme is an improvement from where the House is currently, which is nowhere, it is woefully insufficient. The plan does not allow members to participate in debate on the floor and it does not restart the committees, which is where laws should be drafted and oversight of COVID-19 implementation should take place,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress.
Rank-and-file members put pressure on leadership to come up with a way for the House to continue urgent legislative business during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited travel and made gathering in large groups especially dangerous. Digital solutions used in both the public and private sector have been proposed, but leaders have raised concerns about testing, cybersecurity and access.
House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts has touted the proxy voting proposal as a “temporary, low-tech remote voting” solution.
The organizations would like to see the House Rules Committee draft amendments to House rules to allow temporary authority for committees and floor debate to be conducted remotely and the Appropriations Committee to make available “significant new funding for the legislative branch to support its operations.”
They acknowledge that the legal basis for remote deliberations will need to be considered and outlined by the House Office of General Counsel.
If the House returns for regular business on May 4, as Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has indicated it could, 53 days will have elapsed since its last committee proceeding and 51 days since its last roll call vote on the House floor.
The organizations point to signing statements issued by the White House that stripped oversight provisions from recently enacted coronavirus aid legislation and comments from President Donald Trump saying he had “the ultimate authority,” as reasons for the legislative branch to be active and flexible during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The House must be able to conduct oversight, which can only truly be done when Members are able to have the full capacity of the legislative branch available, including holding hearings, markups, and formal meetings,” the letter states.
On April 16, groups including AEI, the Congressional Management Foundation, Demand Progress, PopVox and others hosted a mock remote congressional hearing in which dozens of former members of Congress served as the committee members and retired Gen. David Petraeus, representatives from Zoom and Microsoft, the British parliamentarian and others served as witnesses.
The mock hearing was held over Zoom and aimed to glean lessons about holding digital hearings from doing a simulation. The witnesses provided testimony on remote deliberations in legislatures around the world and how the U.S. intelligence community and military uses secure teleconferencing regularly. The exercise was intended to show the potential for remote deliberations in Congress.
A petition launched by Demand Progress urging similar changes be made to allow remote congressional action has garnered 46,000 signatures. The petition calls on lawmakers to “co-sponsor a resolution allowing the legislative branch to meet, deliberate, and pass laws without having to convene in person.”
It charges that “Congress is unable to fully function during this critical period, and it is failing to provide oversight of harmful and potentially enduring overreach by the executive branch.”