Burger King figured out how to work safely during the pandemic. Why can’t Congress?

House members have already begun flouting proxy voting rules

The House Appropriations Committee conducts a markup on July 9. Allowing lawmakers to cast floor votes by proxy is not only unconstitutional, it’s also a bad way to conduct the country’s business, Strand writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The House Appropriations Committee conducts a markup on July 9. Allowing lawmakers to cast floor votes by proxy is not only unconstitutional, it’s also a bad way to conduct the country’s business, Strand writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 16, 2020 at 6:00am

When House Democrats forced through their proxy voting scheme, they were warned that it would be abused. Nonsense, was the response. We are in a global health crisis and cannot jeopardize the health and safety of members, staffers and hundreds of others who protect and serve the U.S. Capitol.

And then Florida Reps. Charlie Crist and Darren Soto skipped work to attend a shuttle launch, after certifying to the clerk of the House that they could not attend session because of the coronavirus. 

Proxy voting in the U.S. House of Representatives is problematic for one central reason: Members cannot designate themselves as present by proxy. The Constitution is clear that Congress is expected to gather together to debate and design solutions to national problems through consensus. How can members hope to achieve consensus on a giant Zoom call?

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month held a remote markup of an infrastructure bill that could wind up costing taxpayers more than $1 trillion. The first day of the markup was marred by technical challenges such as when Chairman Peter DeFazio blamed “crappy Wi-Fi” that prevented him from appearing on camera. As reporters watching the hearing pointed out, the new House rules require committee chairs to be visible. Committee Republicans moved to adjourn the markup, saying that technical issues were making it difficult for staff to keep up with proceedings. On a bill with nearly 300 amendments, it is critical that legislative staff accurately record what members are saying and keep pace with the hearing.

So that’s three questionable actions already: two members who used the pretext of the pandemic to give their votes away to someone else and a chairman who flagrantly violated House rules by not appearing on camera during a video session.

What’s next? There are many who are afraid to find out.

There are a number of substantive pieces of legislation House Democrats intend to bring to the floor over the next few weeks, including all of next year’s appropriation bills and possibly another COVID-19 fiscal stimulus. Constituents may be OK with their elected representatives discussing the renaming of a post office via video calls, but spending trillions of dollars or debating and voting on critical police reforms? Yes, the Constitution requires in-person voting, but even if it didn’t, remote governing is still a bad way to conduct the country’s business.

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The people of Florida’s 9th and 13th districts voted for Soto and Crist, respectively, to represent them, which means casting votes that are in the best interests of those individual districts. At no point did a single one of those constituents ever expect either representative to play hooky and give that vote away to someone else — someone who was not elected to represent those districts.

Members are required to inform the clerk of the House of their designated proxy. Each member is allowed to hold up to 10 proxies. This is another reason why House Republicans are correct in filing their legal challenge to this scheme. Instead of each member holding one vote, as the founders intended, members may now have up to 11 times the voting power of those who vote in person.

The House works because there is equal representation of our citizens. No one member is any more powerful than another when it comes time to cast a vote. Until now.

In 1793, Congress understood that it first had to meet in Philadelphia, where Yellow Fever raged, to vote to move the nation’s capital to another city. Members took precautions and showed up to do the jobs they were elected to do. It was the same during the War of 1812 (when the Capitol was torched by the British), the Civil War, the Spanish Flu of 1918 and after 9/11 when the Capitol itself was a target. Members of Congress understood their solemn responsibility to represent their constituents and showed up for work. The U.S Senate has showed up for work and regularly casts votes during the pandemic. One would think the traditional rivalry would embarrass the House into doing the same.

No one said being a member of Congress would be easy, and constituents will understand if a member is sick or in feeble condition. But if Burger King can figure out how to safely hand you a meal while protecting their employees and customers, surely the U.S. House of Representatives can figure out how to safely conduct the people’s business in person, as intended by the U.S. Constitution.

Mark Strand is the president of The Congressional Institute, a nonprofit organization that examines the operations of Congress and provides guidance to members, congressional staff and the American public on understanding how Congress works and how it can work better. He spent nearly 24 years on Capitol Hill in both the House and the Senate, most recently serving as chief of staff to Missouri Republican Jim Talent.