Under a proposed rules change unveiled overnight, House committees could meet remotely and even mark up legislation related to any topic during a 60-day emergency period, but proxy voting on the House floor could only happen on bills related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Rules Committee, dominated by Democrats, will meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday to consider the historic resolution, with opposition expected from Republicans.
A floor vote on the resolution was expected Thursday before House leaders hit the pause button. If adopted, it would not have allowed members to vote by proxy immediately. The House sergeant-at-arms and attending physician would have to identify if a pandemic emergency and 24 hour notice would need to be given to members before a proxy voting could begin. Proxy voting would be limited to legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Within the same 60-day period, House committees would have the authority to conduct hearings and markups remotely. There would be no limitations on the hearing or legislative topics that can be covered remotely.
“To ensure committees are able to continue their essential oversight and legislative functions, the authority is not limited to specific measures,” says a Rules Committee document on common questions about the resolution.
The resolution would allow both House members and witnesses to appear remotely, and for lawmakers to cast votes. There are no details about what technology committees would use.
“The resolution does not specify technology that must be used. Those choices will be made by individual committees in consultation with the Committee on House Administration on the cybersecurity of platforms,” according to the Rules Committee.
The resolution also includes language requiring the House Administration and Rules panels to conduct a study along with the clerk’s office on technology options for future use to facilitate remote participation by House members. The study will look at security of the technology and an evaluation of remote committee proceedings and how states and countries conduct remote legislative sessions.
As a change to House rules, the measure would not need to be adopted by the Senate for it to take effect.
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the ranking Republican on the Rules panel, said in a statement opposing the plan that the House never voted by proxy during the 1918 flu epidemic. He also raised the question of the constitutional validity of proxy votes.
“To be sure, there are appropriate precautions and adaptations we can and should follow,” Cole said. “But I believe we already have existing tools to continue the people’s work without introducing brand-new, constitutionally untested processes that risk erosion of our normal practice.”
Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the ranking member on the House Administration Committee, cast doubt on the fast pace of implementation of remote committee proceedings proposed by Democrats.
“How in the world do they propose to implement a system without studying the effects and the capabilities of the House to implement a technology-based committee process without sitting down and putting people at a table who are going to be tasked with putting these new policies in place?” Davis said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.
Republican leaders in the House are whipping against the proxy voting rule change and some GOP lawmakers came back to Washington early to testify against the measure today’s meeting.
The 13-member panel will meet in one of the largest rooms on Capitol Hill, 1100 Longworth, to facilitate social distancing. The room is often used by the 42-member Ways and Means Committee.
How it would work
Under the proposal, the House sergeant-at-arms and attending physician would have the power to identify if a pandemic emergency related to COVID-19 is in effect, which would be required for the 60-day timeframe to be invoked. The same officials would also be able to indicate that a pandemic emergency is over, which would terminate the proxy voting period before 60 days has elapsed.
Members would be given a 24-hour notice before qualifying votes to allow them to secure proxies. The Rules Committee specifies that the notification of an ongoing pandemic emergency and the 24-hour notice cannot be done on the same day the House adopts the resolution.
Members would have to submit a signed letter to the House clerk to authorize another lawmaker to vote on their behalf and indicate how they are directing the proxy to vote on the legislation. The letter can be sent by email. And if there are changes to the vote schedule, such as a procedural vote or changes to the underlying bill text, a member would have to send written instructions via email to their proxy.
The clerk would keep a publicly available list of proxy designations.
The House Rules Committee says unexpected votes would be held open for an extended period of time to allow lawmakers to send their voting instructions to their proxies. Lawmakers could revoke their proxy designation with either another letter to the clerk or by arriving in person to vote.
Under the proxy procedures, votes would only be taken either by roll call vote or by electronic device. Members present would be able to vote as usual in an electronic vote, but would have to submit a card to the clerk indicating “yes by proxy” or “no by proxy” to cast the votes of their absent colleagues.
Davis has suggested the use of roll call votes, where each member’s name is called aloud, to make voting during the current public health crisis safer for members, staff and others in the Capitol. While he opposes proxy voting, but he has other ideas on how to safely conduct voting in the time of coronavirus.
“I think a roll call vote, as a matter of fact, can be implemented on a rolling basis by alphabetical order, and then you can run it on a certain time-by-time basis,” Davis said.
He suggested that giving time windows for each section of the alphabet to vote would cut down on the number of people in the chamber at once and reduce the likelihood of bottlenecks in elevators or on stairwells as members head to and from the chamber for votes. He noted that no one is holding in-person constituent meetings or fundraisers right now.
“During those roll calls, we have nothing but time to be able to come in on a rolling basis to stay much safer,” said Davis.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that an additional special order resolution would be needed to trigger proxy voting.