Remote voting in the House: The debate, explained

A push for proxy voting in the US House of Representatives during the age of coronavirus has been postponed — for now.

After an outcry from Republicans, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi canceled a planned Thursday vote on a resolution to allow remote voting-by-proxy proposed by House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern. Had the resolution passed, it would have been an unprecedented change — House rules say that members shall be present to vote — in keeping with the unprecedented challenges of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Instead, Pelosi announced Wednesday on a caucus phone call that a bipartisan group will consider ways to do remote voting and committee work, to allow Congress to social distance during the pandemic.

Proxy voting is the act of allowing members of Congress to cast votes on behalf of those who can’t be there in person, in this case because of Covid-19 concerns. While initially reluctant to entertain remote voting, Pelosi recently signaled openness to proxy voting in the midst of the pandemic.

But after a letter from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) asking for “a clear, safe and effective plan for reopening Congress,” Pelosi decided to wait longer for bipartisan consensus on a plan.

The House wasn’t planning to use proxy voting to pass an interim funding bill containing billions of dollars for small businesses slated for Thursday. While leadership is encouraging every member who can safely vote present to return to the Capitol Hill, they were initially hoping to separately pass the proxy-voting resolution as a contingency plan for future votes.

“We are asking every Member to return who can return. And we hope that that is a large number,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told reporters on Tuesday, adding over half of its members are expected to be present for the vote. “We’re not ordering members to come back. We do expect sufficient members to come back so we can have a quorum.”

Pelosi had previously said proxy voting should only be used in a limited fashion, related to coronavirus legislation, before Congress can return to normal.

“It’s not just about us. It’s about the staff, it’s about the press, it’s about the security, it’s about those who run the buildings,” Pelosi told reporters Tuesday.

It’s not just Republicans in the House who have registered their displeasure with the idea. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocked a motion from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to allow temporary remote voting on future bills in the Senate.

“We’re not going to move on another bill related to this subject until we all get back here,” McConnell told Politico’s Burgess Everett in an interview.

What proxy voting might look like in the future

On Wednesday, the House Rules Committee released its plan for proxy voting, which it was set to debate in committee on Wednesday evening.

The Rules Committee resolution would establish proxy voting during times of a pandemic, and it would happen in consultation with both the House Sergeant at Arms and Attending Physician.

The resolution spells out that proxy voting would be temporary and would end after 60 days unless leadership and the Sergeant at Arms decided there should be another 60-day extension if a pandemic were to continue. The period of time for proxy voting could also be terminated early by the House Speaker.

The resolution also spells out the process of how proxy voting will occur; the member who cannot physically be present will submit a signed letter (which can also be submitted electronically) to the House clerk designating who their proxy is.

The proxy would then enter their colleague’s vote into the record during voting, whether done electronically or through a roll call vote. The proxy for a member will indicate they are voting on behalf of another colleague during voting and is expressly not allowed to change their colleague’s vote.

What the resolution did not allow is remote voting being done by Zoom, FaceTime, or any other type of video-conferencing service. Pelosi has stated her opposition to this in the past, even though Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House endorsed the idea on Tuesday.

“I have maintained from the beginning of this discussion that the electronics that we use, like FaceTime, Zoom, Teams — there are a number of different technologies available — millions of people are using those regularly,” Hoyer told reporters. “Frankly, if I’m in my den here in Saint Mary’s County and the clerk is looking at me over FaceTime and I say ‘aye’ and the clerk recognizes me, they mark me as ‘aye.’ I’m not asking anybody else to cast my vote for me; I’m casting it personally.”

While House Republicans have registered their displeasure with the idea, with several lawmakers insisting members should be physically present to conduct the House’s business, Democrats had enough votes to pass the changes along party lines.

But because such a historic proposed change to House rules would impact lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Pelosi ultimately decided to take more time and allow Republicans to weigh in before voting on such a change.

The Senate is more skeptical of proxy voting

Meanwhile, McConnell has been relatively firm about bringing senators back to the Capitol in order to work on the next stimulus package.

In addition to Paul, other lawmakers, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rob Portman (R-OH), have offered their own proposals for how remote voting could work. Their measure, if passed, would grant McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer the authority to declare the need for a 30-day period of remote voting during a national crisis.

“Remote voting would then be allowed for up to 30 days, and the Senate would have to vote to renew remote voting after every 30-day period afterward,” they write in a Washington Post op-ed. “This limitation will ensure that voting remotely cannot become the norm without a consensus around the continuity of an emergency.”

Thus far, McConnell hasn’t signaled any interest in backing this resolution, though Democrats could use the leverage they have in the upper chamber to put pressure on him. Since every bill in the Senate requires 60 votes to pass, for example, Democrats could potentially withhold their support on future packages in an effort to force the consideration of remote voting.

Prior to leaving for recess, McConnell had said that lawmakers would use other means, like trying to stagger when they vote, to maintain social distancing in the Capitol.

“The current plan is to go back in session on May the 4th,” McConnell said on The Hugh Hewitt Show this week. “I haven’t seen anything that would discourage me from doing that.”

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