House Democrats ready proxy voting rules change

Democrats, Republicans unable to reach virtual task force deal

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., will preside over a markup of a resolution to change House rules to allow proxy voting.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., will preside over a markup of a resolution to change House rules to allow proxy voting. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 11:18am, Updated at 3:11pm

Unable to reach an agreement with their Republican colleagues, House Democrats will again attempt to change chamber rules to allow members to vote by proxy on legislation brought to the floor and to let committees use technology to hold official business meetings.

“The intent of this is to allow the Congress to remain operative. We are the policymaking body and we cannot be neutered, if you will, by a virus,” Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday, right around the time Democrats unveiled their proposal.

The 13-page resolution introduced by House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., was not born out of the bipartisan Virtual Congress Task Force and returns largely to an April effort to allow proxy voting in the House.

The Rules Committee will consider the resolution Thursday, along with a rule for floor debate on the next coronavirus relief package. That will set up likely approval of both measures on the floor Friday.

“It was somewhat of an informal task force to try to reach an agreement, and we didn’t,” Hoyer said. “We had a relatively short time to do so.”

The Maryland Democrat said that in addition to the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic, warnings from public health officials about a possible resurgence of the virus in the fall are driving the effort to ensure that Congress can operate if it once again becomes necessary to reduce the number of in-person gatherings.

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“We will now move forward on these temporary emergency procedures to ensure the House can continue fully working for the people during this public health and economic emergency,” Hoyer, McGovern and House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in a statement. “The time has come to act — further delay is not an option.”

The rule change would be temporary and would only last 45 days before needing to be renewed. It would not extend beyond the 116th Congress, which ends in January.

Proxy voting was allowed in committees until Republicans banned the practice after their 1994 takeover of the House.

The implementation of proxy voting would be triggered by a notification to Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the sergeant-at-arms and the attending physician that a public health emergency due to the coronavirus is in effect.

This notification would be followed by Pelosi, in consultation with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, designating a period of time in which proxy voting will be permitted. Enacting proxy voting would not require agreement from Republicans, only “consultation,” according to the text of the resolution.

Democrats say several Republican ideas were incorporated into the revised proxy voting and committee action resolution, including barring committees from conducting secret or executive sessions remotely, due to concerns about security.

Virtual committee action

The resolution would authorize House committees to hold virtual hearings, markups and depositions using software platforms approved by the chief administrative officer for remote participation.

Committee leaders would have the choice to conduct the proceedings entirely online or in a hearing room with some lawmakers on-site and others remote, in a hybrid model that the Senate has used in recent weeks.

Members participating remotely would count toward a quorum for purposes of determining committee proceedings and voting.

On the floor

The proposed change to House rules would allow an absent lawmaker to designate a colleague to vote on House floor matters on the member’s behalf.

Lawmakers unable to travel to the Capitol would send a letter, electronically, to the House clerk to authorize another member to vote on their behalf and would provide exact instruction on how to vote on each question on the floor.

“This is going to be a very limited, direct instruction from the person who’s giving the proxy to the person who’s holding the proxy and will counsel the proxy [with] specific instructions of how to vote on each and every issue,” Hoyer said.

The authorization could be updated as procedural or other unexpected votes arise during the session.

Members able and willing to vote in person on their own behalf could still do so. Those physically present would be eligible to cast votes on behalf of their colleagues, with a member limited to serving as a designated proxy for a maximum of 10 members. This limitation may have been included to convince skeptical members concerned about designated proxies holding too much power.

The proposal is not a “general proxy” to allow minority and majority leaders to serve as proxies for members of their respective parties for a verbal roll call vote.

The clerk’s office would be required to post a list of designated proxies on its website, and members participating via proxy would be printed in the Congressional Record.

“Proxy voting is the first step,” Hoyer said.

The resolution also would require a study from the House Administration Committee on the feasibility of using technology to conduct remote voting in the House, including operable and secure technology options. It would also require the Rules Committee to develop regulations on the implementation of remote voting.

A significant change

If adopted, the House rules change to allow proxy voting would be the most significant update to voting procedures since the elimination of “teller votes” in March 1971 and the debut of the current electronic voting system in January 1973.

Under the teller system, votes of members during the amendment state of a bill were not recorded. Instead, members walked up the center aisle of the chamber to be counted for or against an amendment, but they were never recorded.

This allowed members to use this system of secrecy to escape accountability for votes on controversial amendments.

Turnout for teller votes usually ranged from 90 to 200 members, meaning that bills were amended and shaped significantly by less than a quarter of the House.

The practice was put to an end in 1971 as the chamber awaited the installation of an electronic voting system that was still in development.

In the meantime, members picked up red cards for “no” and green cards for “aye” from a table in the well of the House to mark their position on an amendment.

There was hope that recorded votes would not only increase accountability of the House and its individual members but also decrease member absenteeism — a problem evident from the low numbers counted on various teller votes — since lawmakers would not want to miss recorded votes.

The arrival of the electronic voting system transformed House votes, allowing members to insert a voting card in one of the many machines located around the chamber and to select their vote position on the open question.

An illuminated display in the balconies overlooking the chamber kept a running total of votes cast and how much time remained for a vote.

While the system has seen upgrades since its inception, including connecting the system to modern computing systems, the changes have not greatly affected the voting procedure used or the user experience of members casting their votes.

GOP opposition

House Republicans are whipping against the proxy voting measure.

“Democrats are jamming through a rules change that would upend 200 years of precedent and have serious constitutional and institutional repercussions,” reads a notice sent to GOP members from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise.

The Louisiana Republican pointed out that with each present member able to represent up to 10 proxy designations from absent colleagues, Democrats would only need 22 members in the chamber to pass legislation.

He also said that minority rights would not be protected because concurrence between the chairman and ranking member of committees would not be required to implement proxy voting and remote business meetings on the committee level.

“House Republicans stand ready to work with the majority to establish a safe and effective plan for how the House needs to adapt during these unprecedented times,” Scalise said in the whip notice. “Unfortunately, this partisan proposal will not achieve that goal.”