Partisan split over remote work leaves House in legislative limbo

Democrats largely support the change; Republicans are skeptical

Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., left, and Rep. Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, walk down the steps of the Capitol on Thursday before the House vote on the $483.4 billion economic relief package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., left, and Rep. Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, walk down the steps of the Capitol on Thursday before the House vote on the $483.4 billion economic relief package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 24, 2020 at 11:16am

A bipartisan House task force might struggle to agree to rules for legislating during the coronavirus pandemic amid a partisan divide about whether Congress should be working remotely or in Washington.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the formation of the task force after Republicans objected to Democrats’ plan to quickly advance a rule change this week to allow for proxy voting, saying the minority had no input in the process.

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., released the proposed rule early Wednesday in anticipation of a floor vote the following day. Later that morning, Pelosi announced the vote was off and that the task force would try to come up with a bipartisan plan.

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But for some remote work supporters, the working group feels like a dead end to weeks of slow progress.

“I think the best we’ll implement are rule changes for the next crisis,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., told CQ Roll Call. “Frankly, I’m very disappointed.”

Malinowski’s pessimism about what the bipartisan group can accomplish is not unfounded. The House has not conducted legislative business in six weeks other than passing two emergency coronavirus relief packages and a resolution to form a select committee to oversee administration of the nearly $3 trillion in aid.

Without a decision to either bring the House back to Washington for regular sessions or to conduct business remotely, the legislative limbo could continue. (The House has set a tentative return date of May 4, but several lawmakers predict that will be pushed back due to stay-at-home orders that are expected to last beyond that in many states, including those in the D.C. region.)

CQ Roll Call interviewed 20 lawmakers in the Capitol Thursday, and there was a clear partisan split over changing the rules.

Democrats largely support Congress implementing some procedures for remote work during the pandemic, while Republicans mostly prefer that the House return to Washington and conduct legislative business in person.

“There’s not much agreement right now, and I don’t know what we can do to try to find a place where there is some,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker said.

The Republican Conference vice chairman agrees with a large number of his GOP colleagues who think Congress should return to regular work in Washington.

“People like my wife and others who are front-line health care providers, they have to show up to work. You know, we do too,” Walker said. “To me there’s a psychological aspect that if Congress can go back and do their job, then maybe that’s a reason that other people start thinking about bringing some hope right now, not more cancellations and change, in the way that we lead our lives.”

Some Democrats have the opposite view.

“I don't think you give the public more confidence when members of Congress are stupid enough to get in flying incubators in order to come to work, when instead you could take care of things [remotely],” Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan said. “And honestly, more of my work these days is making sure we’re getting supplies for my state of Wisconsin, because we’re woefully low on reagents and test kits and [personal protective equipment]. And so I should be back home.”

‘This is 2020’

Pocan is among a group of Democrats who feel the proxy voting proposal the Rules Committee came up with was fine as a first step but more could be done to allow all members to work remotely during the pandemic or other future emergency situations where physically gathering is a challenge.

“This is 2020,” he said. “There’s so many other options you could do in a situation like this. And the fact that we have any resistance from anyone for doing that doesn’t make any sense. Private business does this all the time. We certainly can.”

It’s not just Republicans who have resisted calls for remote work. Pelosi has concerns about finding a secure platform that could host remote House votes and committee meetings and that such a move could be challenged as unconstitutional.

But in a sign that she’s open to listening to her caucus, a vast majority of which seems to favor remote work options, she tapped House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer to serve on the task force. The Maryland Democrat favors going beyond McGovern’s proxy voting proposal and doesn’t share Pelosi’s concerns about security of technology platforms for conducting business remotely.

“I think we need to raise the confidence level that technology can in fact work and will be fair to both sides,” Hoyer told reporters Thursday after the task force held its first meeting in the basement of the Capitol.

The group is planning to meet again early next week but over the phone, Hoyer said. The other members involved are House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy; McGovern; Rules Committee ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla.; House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; and that panel's ranking member Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

McGovern said in floor remarks Thursday he hopes the task force can come to agreement quickly.

“The status quo, in my opinion, is unacceptable and dangerous,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “Both sides of the aisle need to have some urgency in addressing this issue.”

Pelosi, speaking on the floor shortly after McGovern, said she hopes the group can produce a bipartisan plan for the House to vote on when it returns to Washington, which could be as early as May 4. She seemed focused on the proxy voting proposal, but Republicans don’t see that as the starting point for negotiations.

“The Democrats on this task force know that Leader McCarthy and ranking member Cole and I had problems with their proxy proposal,” Davis told CQ Roll Call. “That’s not a secret. And I don’t believe that their goal is to bring that proxy proposal back up and try and tweak it. If so, then they would need us because it wouldn’t be bipartisan.”

While McGovern discussed the proxy voting proposal during the first meeting, Hoyer said the focus was first coming up with a solution for committees to meet remotely. He floated testing technology options in that setting to build confidence for Congress to operate remotely on a larger scale.

Too little, too late?

For most Republicans, the moment to discuss a change in congressional operations has passed.

“I think the proxy voting was a grand discussion probably six weeks ago,” Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins said. “It's now sort of running its time down. And the way it was put out here as very partisan. It just shows the 116th Congress that this is our problem right here — a leadership that does not know how to do anything to work across the aisle to get stuff done.”

Rep. Drew Ferguson of Georgia, the Republican chief deputy whip, acknowledged that some accommodations need to be made due to the pandemic, but he seemed more interested in the task force figuring out new ways Congress can do its work on Capitol Hill, rather than remotely.

“I think if we’re smart about what we’re doing, then I think that there’s no reason that we shouldn’t be back up here,” Ferguson said. “This is the worst crisis in centuries of this country. We should be up here working to find pathways forward to rebuild the American dream. And so I think it’s important that the speaker show the leadership and creativity and working with the minority to figure out ways to do that.”

Several Republicans said they’ve not heard any rule change proposed — whether it’s proxy voting or remote voting — that they’d support.

“We’re trying to encourage the rest of the country to get to work. I think the best way to encourage it is to lead by example and be at work,” Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Scott Perry said.  

Still, some Republicans are open to changes, so long as they’ve been fully vetted.

“We should measure twice and cut once when we’re dealing with 200-year practices, traditions and rules of the House,” South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson said. “I’m not opposed to us looking for some ways to integrate technology into our work. It certainly seems like video teleconferencing could be a part of committee action. But before we start to deal with actually changing how we vote on the House floor, this has got to be a bipartisan plan with broad consensus. We should not be trying to shove this through on party-line votes for sure.”

While some Democrats acknowledged the hesitancy from their GOP colleagues, they still see room for compromise. For example, Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, who had tested positive for COVID-19 last month but did not experience serious symptons, said some Republicans seem open to supporting proxy voting in committee despite opposing it for floor votes.

“You might be able to start there,” he said.

Several Democrats had already viewed McGovern’s proxy voting proposal as a compromise, because it would provide a solution for members who want Congress to continue conducting legislative business from the Capitol and those who don’t feel comfortable traveling to Washington.

Eleven-term Democratic Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, who favors proxy voting over remote voting, said Congress has found itself in this position before.

“We had these debates after Sept. 11. We had these debates after the great crash and also during Ebola. But the events go away, and everybody moves on, and the issue still hangs out there,” Larson said. “And I think one of the reasons is because people like and respect their tradition of everybody gathering together.”