Is House proxy voting here to stay? 

The Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza during sunset on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.
Greg Nash

On Jan. 20, the Brookings Institution released an updated study on proxy voting on the floor of the House of Representatives. The report reviewed votes through the first session of this 117th Congress. Coauthored by Emily Larson, Naomi Maehr and Molly E. Reynolds, the study highlights the fact that an increasing number of Republicans are using proxies, despite their initial rejection of the device when it was first introduced in May 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Only seven GOP members were on board with the process in the 116th Congress, and 160 joined with their House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) on a court suit against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), challenging the procedure on grounds the Constitution requires members’ actual presence for quorum and voting purposes. Today, the study notes, 80 percent of House members have taken advantage of the remote voting option, including nearly 70 percent of Republican Conference members. Moreover, all but one of the original 160 Republican plaintiffs withdrew their names from the suit at their leader’s suggestion. The suit was dismissed by two lower federal courts on grounds that the “speech or debate clause” of the Constitution protects members from being questioned in any other place for their legislative acts. On Jan. 24 the Supreme Court rejected the GOP request that it review the lower courts’ action.   

A second significant highlight of the Brookings report is the seeming anomaly that “certain votes have seen exceptionally high numbers of proxy voters,” citing the example of the vote on President Joe Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” legislation in November – “one of the most significant votes of the year.” The bill passed on a party-line vote of 220 to 213, with 98 members casting their votes by proxy, including 55 Republicans and 43 Democrats.  

According to data I have been compiling since proxies were introduced in mid-2020, the average number of proxies cast per roll call vote in the 116th Congress was 46.5, and in the first session of this Congress, 41.6.  So any marked increases from those averages is worth noting.  My cursory review of the measures voted tends to confirm the Brookings finding that important measures do attract a larger number of members voting by proxy. The major COVID relief, supplemental appropriations package passed the House on Dec. 21, 2020, by a vote of 359 to 53, with 98 Members voting by proxy. That was the highest number of proxies cast since the procedure’s inception in May, though a week later, on Dec. 28, that record was exceeded by 122 proxies cast on overriding the president’s veto of the defense authorization act. 

In this Congress, in addition to the 98 proxies cast on “Build Back Better,” there were 80 proxies voted on the major infrastructure bill on Nov. 5 (43 by Republicans and 37 by Democrats), and 143 proxies cast on the debt limit extension on Dec. 14 (56 by Republicans and 87 by Democrats). 

It might be easy to conclude that the more important a bill, the more likely it is that members will stay in their districts and vote remotely. But the correlation is more a reflection of timing than anything: the closer votes occur to a recess or major holiday, the more likely it is members will want to stay close to hearth and home (family and constituents). 

The Brooking’s study observes that the proxy voting option “is now welcomed by both parties as a reform of traditional voting procedures…raising questions about its potential in the future.”  House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) hinted as much to The Hill back in March when he noted “there will be discussion about whether we should be able to vote remotely in other circumstances post COVID-19.”  He tipped his hand when he added, “There is really…no magic in being in a particular room when you vote.”  Ranking Rules Committee Republican Tom Cole (Okla.) offered a contrary view: “A lot of business gets transacted on the floor, just interacting with other members. So missing that…really weakens members and honestly strengthens leadership.” 

As I observed in a piece published here last year, “Yesterday’s emergency mandates become today’s convenient necessities.” The proxy voting option appeals both to leadership, from the standpoint of certainty and control, and to rank-and-file members from the standpoint of freedom and flexibility. Left on the losing side are the democratic values of debate, deliberation and interpersonal relationships and cooperation. Let the debate begin.    

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. 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Proxy voting Steny Hoyer Tom Cole
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