The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the House to allow lawmakers to vote by proxy, without physical presence at the Capitol. The significant, yet temporary, change to operations was not enacted during any other national crisis in history.
The House voted 217-189 Friday to approve a package of historic changes to the chamber rules to allow Congress to continue much of its business through the pandemic that has made gathering together and travel threats to public health.
“Convening Congress must not turn into a super-spreader event,” said House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern.
Under the new rules, lawmakers will be able to join millions of Americans in working from home if they are unable to travel to Capitol Hill to participate in House business.
Debate over the changes has been fiery, as Republicans want to follow the lead of the president and GOP-led Senate and resume regular business. Democrats say that short term reliance on technology will provide a safe way to work as the pandemic drags on. But Republicans objected to what they called a power grab by the Democratic majority during the crisis.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Rules panel, warned the changes will fundamentally alter the nature of the institution, “and not for the better.”
Still, Democrats prevailed on the rules change. “The question before us today is a simple one: will this institution, which has adapted to challenges and technology time and time again throughout its history, adapt so we can continue legislating during this public health emergency,” said McGovern.
Proxy voting and remote committee business would only be allowed for a 45 day period, but it could be renewed. The authority to enact a period of proxy voting ends at the close of the 116th Congress. This limited window did not quell concerns from Republicans that remote governing would set a precedent that they said would erode the institution.
Oregon Republican Greg Walden called the temporary changes to House rules, “a wrecking ball of Democratic lawmaking.”
The resolution authorizes House committees to hold virtual hearings, markups and depositions using software platforms certified by the chief administrative officer, the office in charge of cybersecurity and technology in the House.
While some House committees and caucuses have held roundtable discussions and other meetings by video conference in recent weeks, existing House rules did not permit official committee business to be conducted remotely. Panels can now consider and advance legislation and hold official hearings on oversight.
Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Ryan said he’s been doing virtual meetings and plans to move forward with hearings on fiscal 2021 spending.
“We're doing appropriation committee hearings online. It's not the best, but it's pretty good,” said the Ohio Democrat, who also told CQ Roll Call that he’s pretty good at Zoom, the video conferencing platform.
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 — 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.
Michigan Republican Tim Walberg warned that technological hiccups could have an outsized impact on a member being able to voice their viewpoints, citing a meeting last week when his microphone would not unmute.
“I was passed over. When I texted in to find out why, I was told basically ‘That’s too bad; we’ll catch you at the end,’” said Walberg.
The House Rules Committee early Friday issued a wide array of regulations governing remote committee proceedings, from the rules of when the “mute” function can be utilized to the work-from-home dress code for video conferences.
The regulations specify that the mute button cannot be used as a weapon to enforce decorum, but that committee chairmen or their designee can mute microphones of members not recognized to speak “for the purposes of eliminating inadvertent background noise.”
Lawmakers are not allowed to have a campaign slogan or other political displays as their background during a committee video conference.
“Members participating remotely must conform to the same standards for proper attire as are required to participate in a committee proceeding in person,” according to the regulations.
Never before have House members been able to cast their vote while absent from Washington.
Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer quoted President Abraham Lincoln, telling his colleagues, “We must act and think anew.”
Under the proxy voting allowance, members will send a letter, electronically, to the House clerk to authorize another member to vote on their behalf. The proxy designation must provide exact instructions on how to vote on each question on the floor. 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 was included to appease concerns from Republicans that designated proxies would hold too much power.
Rep. Jim Jordan argued that proxy voting would violate the Constitution and give too much power to leadership.
“It's just dangerous when you start allowing proxy votes and the power becomes more centralized,” Jordan told CQ Roll Call ahead of Friday’s vote.
Many Republicans spoke on the floor about the perceived power gained by leadership when rank-and-file members are not gathering casually on Capitol Hill or able to offer a check on the top ranks of each party.
Despite the establishment last month of a bipartisan Virtual Congress Task Force to explore remote operations options and strategies for continuing House business during the coronavirus crisis, the rules changes approved Friday were not born out of that effort and were opposed by Republicans.
Rep. Tom McClintock said proxy voting would dilute constituents’ representation in Congress.
“Each of us is a proxy for our constituents. They expect us to speak and vote for them and answer to them and not hand off that trust to someone entirely unaccountable because we’re too lazy or too scared to show up for work,” said the California Republican.
Democrats emphasized the proxy could not deviate from instructions on how to vote from the member they were voting for. They said they have no interest in replacing traditional voting and legislating and that the solutions offered in the temporary change, while not perfect, will allow the House to get to work.
“We need to get back to regular order in some way. If proxy voting and virtual committee meetings lead us there, we need to do that,” said Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur.
“We’re not suggesting permanent changes. No one believes we do our best work in-person and side-by-side more than me,” said McGovern. “Remote legislating will only be utilized so long as this pandemic continues.”
First steps, what comes next
The rules change resolution also included a requirement that the House Administration Committee study the feasibility of using technology to conduct remote voting in the House, including an evaluation of operable and secure technology options. The Rules Committee is required to develop regulations on implementation of such a remote voting system.
While proxy voting and virtual markups are a step too far for many Republicans, Hoyer, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi and other Democrats say these changes are just the beginning.
“I think it’s a halfway measure to remote voting, which I think will be the ultimate solution,” said Krishnamoorthi of proxy voting.
The Illinois Democrat told CQ Roll Call that a fully remote voting system needs to be the ultimate goal, but not for regular use. He said having the rules and technology for remote voting ready is key for continuity planning in the case of a future threat.
“Long term there needs to be a system in place for remote voting in the most extreme of circumstances,” he said.
Hoyer has been a cheerleader for using technology to solve operational problems posed by the pandemic. He’s made it clear that he would like proxy voting to be the first step toward a fully remote voting platform that could be used in emergencies, with a preference for video technology.
"Whether it’s Zoom, FaceTime, Team, WebEx or any other technology of that type, when I’m looking at Tom Cole … I see him on the screen; I know it’s Tom Cole,” said Hoyer. “And when Tom Cole says something, I know that is what Tom Cole is saying. There’s no secrecy here. There’s no smoke and mirrors.”
Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.