What’s next for proxy voting and hybrid committees?

Inquiring members of Congress want to know

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has extended the proxy voting period in the House through Aug. 17. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has extended the proxy voting period in the House through Aug. 17. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 1, 2021 at 5:00am

Lawmakers are exploring what practices implemented during the pandemic could hold value for years to come and which should become relics of the age of COVID-19, particularly proxy voting and hybrid hearings.

Before Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the latest 45-day extension of the proxy voting period through Aug. 17, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise urged Democratic leaders to let the authority expire.

“Can we let Congress get back to the normal work and not renew proxy voting because, as we’ve seen, there’s a lot more cooperation, a lot more agreements you can reach when you’re here in person working together that you just can’t get on a Zoom or Webex call or just somebody standing at home proxy-voting and not coming here to Washington,” the Louisiana Republican said during a June 25 colloquy on the floor with Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.

Republicans have opposed proxy voting since it was introduced and implemented in May 2020, and even sued Pelosi, alleging that proxy voting was unconstitutional. Some Republicans got on board eventually, using the tool most notably when opportunities to appear with President Donald Trump arose.

In recent weeks, Pelosi has pointed out that the vaccination rate for the Capitol community is over 85 percent, which prompted the lifting of a mask mandate on the House floor and in committees. But top Democrats say the proxy voting extension is still needed as the country battles variants and regular family patterns are still in flux.

Child care woes

In response to Scalise on the floor, Clyburn cited pandemic-related child care challenges as one reason to continue the authority for proxy voting.

“We want to be a family-friendly Congress, and families are reordering their business so that their children and other children can be accounted for and taken care of as we return back to normal,” the South Carolina Democrat said.

This week, other House Democrats said child care and family situations, along with the chamber’s schedule for the rest of the year, have been big topics of discussion among parents in the caucus.

Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the informal Moms in the House Caucus, said that as some parts of society open back up quickly and others more slowly, child care and planning for families is a real challenge.

She said she talked to House leaders about the need for flexibility, even though she personally isn’t juggling small children, with her youngest heading off to college.

Wasserman Schultz cited situations in which a remote-working parent gets called back into the workplace. That would create a “‘What the heck do I do’ moment,” she told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday, adding that “being sensitive to that is really critical.”

Wasserman Schultz said lawmakers and staffers with kids are facing the same challenges as many Americans across the country, with some day care centers open, others shuttered, some camps functioning, others closed.

“This is going to be a slower process to make sure that family life returns to normal, where you don’t have to scramble to make arrangements for your children,” she said. “And yes, even Congress is thankfully recognizing that.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that in addition to child care, the new coronavirus variants are also something the House sergeant-at-arms, the Capitol’s attending physician and Pelosi have taken into account.

“We particularly need to be careful if we haven’t gotten vaccinated or our kids haven’t gotten vaccinated,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Proxy voting has not only been used for pandemic- or health-related absences.

There are several examples of members of both parties voting by proxy to attend events that conflicted with House business.

To vote by proxy, lawmakers must sign a letter with the House clerk and allow another member to vote at their direction and on their behalf. The letters, which are filed with the House clerk’s office, say: “I am unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.”

Republicans who missed votes to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference in February or to be at the Texas border this week and voted by proxy signed letters citing the pandemic as their reason.

Democrats from the Michigan delegation did the same when they accompanied President Joe Biden on a trip to the Wolverine State in May and are expected to do so again Thursday.

A handful of lawmakers and staff on both sides of the aisle expressed exasperation with this broad use of proxy voting but didn’t want to speak on the record disparaging their colleagues for utilizing the practice outside of strictly pandemic related needs.

Remote and hybrid committee business

The House rule change to allow for proxy voting also authorized remote committee business, a change that could have more staying power.

More than halfway through the year, the House schedule still has about seven more weeks ahead designated for “committee business” only, with no floor votes expected.

Wasserman Schultz has been looking at the calendar and figuring out what time to block out for constituent work, family and when she’ll be in Washington.

She got assurances that House leadership would try to “ensure that the calendar as we see it for the rest of this year would likely remain in place so that members would have that certainty.”

Wasserman Schultz warned that if proxy voting and remote committee action is lifted hastily, without notice, “then that means they abandoned the calendar too, and you’re upending members’ family plans and constituent plans.”

But she didn’t get into the details of her talks with House leaders about how proxy voting or remote committee work would fit into maintaining the existing schedule.

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern told CQ Roll Call that his committee will be holding hearings in the coming months to look at chamber operations as the country emerges from the pandemic.

“Let’s look at all of this. Is there any of this stuff we want to keep? Or what do we want to end?” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

McGovern touted the newfound ability for committees to hear from far-flung experts on key topics via video and how important getting information from an array of witnesses is.

“If we want to continue that or not, that’s a conversation that we’re going to have. We’re going to listen to what members have to say,” he said.