Speaker extends pandemic emergency and remote voting to mid-August
© Greg Nash

Just before adjournment on Monday, the House Clerk read a letter from the Sergeant-at-Arms declaring, after consultation with the Attending Physician, that the pandemic health emergency remains in effect, thereby extending to mid-August special rules allowing remote floor voting and virtual committee proceedings.

It all seemed a bit anomalous as the Capitol doctor a couple of weeks ago had lifted the mandatory mask and social distancing rules for those members and staff who have been fully vaccinated. There in the House Rules Committee on Monday, for the first time since March 2020, a fully assembled committee contingent was meeting on a number of items, side-by-side, cheek-to-jowl, all without masks.  And panels of members from other committees gathered at the witness table to present their testimony for and against the measures pending for floor clearance by the committee, again without a mask in sight.

Likewise, on the floor members once again are mingling in their usual fashion, listening to the debate and socializing like it was their first day back from an extended school vacation, which it was for many. But, out of an abundance of caution, the powers-that-be decided it was the better part of wisdom to at least theoretically keep the health emergency status in place, at least on paper, lest there be some slippage down the road. Are they worried members might forget how to wear a mask or social distance if they aren’t reminded they are still technically under that emergency designation?

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So, the special emergency rules persist that allow members to cast their floor votes from their home districts through designated proxy-holders who are given specific instructions. And committees can still hold hearings and markups in what will become increasingly partial virtual proceedings, or, “hybrid” meetings, with some members physically in attendance in their Capitol Hill committee rooms and others still scattered to the winds in their districts.

It must be confusing to the general public, though perhaps it has suspected all along that Congress doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going — so apparently it has settled on doing both. Meanwhile, workers on Main Street and Wall Street are finding their ways back to their offices, and schools are beginning to open as well.

One wonders, though, whether part of the decision to extend remote floor voting and virtual committee deliberations has something to do with what I have termed, the “culture of convenience?” It’s not unusual for the House to adopt special rules to address special circumstances, and the pandemic shutdown has certainly been a special circumstance. But, once the crisis has mostly passed, members decide they liked the convenience of not having to fly in and out of Washington each week. They are much more comfortable staying at home, working their districts, helping their constituents with case work, looking after those special federal projects, and laying the groundwork for the crucial mid-term elections just around the corner in 2022. Never mind that members already have one or two district offices fully staffed with folks to do that work.

Yesterday’s emergency mandates become today’s convenient necessities (pardon the oxymoron). It might have some appeal to the more fiscally conservative citizens: think of all the taxpayer dollars being saved on roundtrip plane flights each week Congress is in session. I suspect, however, that most voters would like to know their representatives are actually earning their pay by being physically present in their committees and floor sessions in Washington. Isn’t the essence of deliberative democracy, after all, face-to-face deliberations between proponents and opponents of a particular bill or amendment?

In tracking remote floor voting since it began back in early 2020, I have found the numbers of members who instruct other members to vote for them on the floor, is a wildly fluctuating figure, though usually well under 100 of the 435 House members. These past two weeks absentee proxies varied between the mid-30s and mid-50s.

What is it that occasions some members to absent themselves for most of the emergency while others seem to float in and out, depending on what bills are up for consideration and how their absentee voting will look to constituents having a particular interest in certain legislation. Supposedly, under the rules adopted for remote floor voting members must certify to the Clerk that they are unable to attend the House session due to the public health emergency. But that’s hard to affirm when the nature of the emergency is not fluctuating like the stock market.

If I had my druthers (or even knew what a druther was), I would pull the plug on remote floor voting tomorrow. With the House back in full-dress sessions there can be no excuse for members to miss the vital work of Congress, especially now that it is digging out legislatively from the economic and health disaster that has so seriously clobbered our country and the world. It’s time to throw-off those masks of personal convenience and don the robes of serious legislators.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.