Proxy hearing sparks institutional conversation 

Flags are flown at half-mast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 24, 2022, to honor former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who passed on March 23, 2022.
Anna Rose Layden

The House Rules Committee is to be commended on holding a day-long 

hearing March 17 on proxy floor voting and remote committee proceedings — two emergency pandemic procedures initiated in the last Congress. All told, 16 House members testified, ten Republicans and six Democrats, including the majority leader, two committee chairs and four ranking minority members. 

I was not surprised that most Republicans still strongly oppose the proxy voting rule and most Democrats remain largely supportive. I was most impressed, though, that the hearing brought-out a long-missing discussion about what Congress should be all about, and how to achieve it: lawmaking in the best interests of the country is job one, and that is best done through deliberation and compromise. The pandemic has certainly robbed the body of more opportunities for thrashing-out partisan, regional and ideological differences in face-to-face debate and consultation, both in committee and on the floor.  

In his letter of March 10 announcing the hearing and inviting colleagues to testify at this “Member Day” hearing, Rules Chairman James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) said the purpose of the session was not only to “hear from Members about how proxy voting and remote committee proceedings have worked over the past twenty-two months,” but also “whether these tools have utility beyond the public health emergency.”

The Rules Committee conducted its hearing in hybrid fashion, with some committee members and witnesses in the committee room and others participating by remote links, demonstrating that there is still a keen interest in doing what’s right for the institution and the people being represented there. The discussion was both heartfelt and civil, in stark contrast to the vituperative, hyper-partisan rhetoric being flung about in some committee rooms and chamber debates nowadays.

The second thing that struck me was that even some of the Democratic witnesses and committee members conceded that the proxy voting system is being abused by some members. Under the terms of the rule, in order to designate and instruct proxies, members must sign a statement affirming they are unable to attend the session due to the pandemic health emergency.  

And yet, it is not unusual for floor attendance to be sparser at the beginning and end of each week and closer to a full House in the middle of the week when more important legislation is being considered and more votes are being cast. To paraphrase one Republican witness, this is incontrovertible proof that these members are lying about the reason for their absence.   

In my proxy vote-tracking data, for example, during the week prior to the Rules Committee’s hearing, when the House met from Monday, March 7 through Wednesday, March 9, there were 54 proxy votes cast on two bills under suspension of the rules on the first day, 50 and 41 votes cast by proxy on two suspension bills the second day, and, on a quorum call at the beginning of the action on Wednesday, only 36 proxies were cast. However, as explained in my previous column, the House had to do a do-over on the rule for the consolidated appropriations bill, pushing the session into the evening hours when Democratic members had expected to be on a train to Philadelphia in the late afternoon for their annual messaging retreat.   

Consequently, by the time rollcall votes were called in the early evening on the new special rule and the omnibus bill, there were anywhere from 64 to 69 proxies cast on eight rollcall votes, meaning only around 360 of the 433 members were still in D.C., even though 392 had been present earlier in the day. Over 30 members had apparently decided that the health emergency prevented them from voting after dark, and simply disappeared into thin air, or, more likely, onto packed airplanes headed home.

The most persuasive argument for continuing proxy voting in some form beyond the pandemic was delivered by two women, one a Rules Committee member and the other a witness. They recounted their personal experiences as new mothers, and the difficulty of balancing their congressional and maternal responsibilities. One compromise rule floated by Rules member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) was that proxy voting be allowed only for those members having “a compelling personal medical or family matter” to deal with.   

However, if Republicans retake control of the House in this year’s midterm elections, most observers predict they will abolish proxy voting, no matter how valid a member’s reasons may be. Remote committee proceedings, on the other hand, have a much better chance of surviving a change in party control. Ranking Rules Republican Tom Cole (Okla.), for instance, expressed his support for continuing the practice. At least it does not allow for committee proxies — a practice abolished back in 1995. 

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 COVID-19 James McGovern Jamie Raskin Proxy voting Tom Cole United States House Committee on Rules
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