Pelosi backs remote voting for House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday endorsed a proposal by Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) that would allow House lawmakers to vote remotely during the coronavirus crisis.
“We don’t know how long this pandemic will threaten public health, or how long state stay at home orders will last. We all know, though, that Congress needs to be working, whether in person, remotely, or both,” McGovern said in a statement.
The Speaker’s office forwarded the statement from McGovern to reporters, a sign of her backing for the proposal.
“We should not wait for this pandemic to end to make changes to the rules that help us to do our jobs in such an unprecedented time,” McGovern added. “I hope my colleagues, Democratic and Republican, can work together to implement this temporary solution.”
The proposed rules change from McGovern would only apply to bills related to addressing the coronavirus crisis.
While proxy voting would allow members to cast virtual roll call votes on legislation that hits the House floor, it would not apply to committee activity. Congress is still hampered in its ability to hold public hearings or vote to advance legislation in committees.
Members also still don’t have a way to participate in floor debate remotely. But last month, House leaders encouraged members to record video statements to be aired on C-SPAN explaining how they would have voted on the coronavirus relief package.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), the co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, has been circulating a resolution that would establish a bipartisan commission to devise a way for the House to conduct debate and votes remotely, including in committees.
Gottheimer said Thursday that he would support the rules change to allow proxy voting, but called it “one piece of the puzzle.”
“It’s a good step. But it doesn’t really solve the broader issue that many of us are trying to address,” Gottheimer said in an interview, adding that the House should find ways to be able to conduct oversight with hearings or engage in legislative debates that are broadcast to the public.
In the absence of being able to hold public hearings to conduct oversight, committee leaders have been holding member briefings with administration officials. But so far there have not been proposals offered by leadership to allow some form of virtual committee hearings.
“So oversight is occurring. It’s just not occurring as effectively as it would be if we could have committee hearings with administration testimony,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Wednesday.
Leaders in both parties have been skeptical of allowing lawmakers to vote on legislation without being present in the Capitol. But the idea has been gaining traction after at least six lawmakers tested positive for COVID-19 and Congress finds it has limited ways to quickly respond to the crisis without members being physically present in the Capitol.
A handful of U.S. Capitol Police officers and congressional staffers have also tested positive.
In a conference call Thursday with his Democratic colleagues, McGovern recommended that the House change its rules to allow proxy voting, which would permit absent members to authorize another member physically present in the chamber to cast a vote on their behalf.
McGovern previously floated the idea in a report his office issued last month outlining options for lawmakers to vote during the crisis in a way that adheres to public health guidelines.
But Thursday marked the first time that the powerful Rules chairman publicly endorsed the idea as the best option available.
And unlike testing and setting up some kind of system involving technology, like videoconferencing software, McGovern argued that this type of proxy voting — what he called “temporary, low-tech remote voting” — could be implemented much faster.
“This system would enable members to vote remotely in a secure way, without using the kind of technology that is susceptible to hacking or interference by foreign bad actors. And because it doesn’t rely on some new technology being stood up and vigorously tested, it could give members a say on important legislation,” McGovern said.
But it’s unclear whether Republicans would sign onto the proposed rules change.
GOP support would be necessary to adopt the rules change by unanimous consent or voice vote. Otherwise, members would have to be physically present in the chamber to vote on the rules change.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) expressed opposition to the idea of proxy voting last month, telling The Hill that “I don’t think proxy voting is healthy. It puts too much power in one hand.”
But other high-profile GOP lawmakers such as Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) have pushed for some form of remote voting.
“I think there’s a growing consensus that it’s inevitable at this point,” one senior GOP aide told The Hill, “and if something is not done that Congress will render itself irrelevant in responding to this crisis.”
There is precedent for proxy voting in House and Senate committees, but not on the floor of either chamber.
The House last month passed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package by voice vote, but it took some creative steps for leaders of both parties to circumvent Rep. Thomas Massie’s (R-Ky.) demand for a roll-call vote.
House leaders scrambled to call back as many members as possible to the Capitol so they could establish a quorum with at least 216 lawmakers on hand to override Massie’s request. But in order to ensure members could adhere to physical distancing guidelines, they directed many members to sit in the visitors’ galleries overlooking the chamber instead of cramming everyone on the House floor as usual.
Massie has threatened again in recent days to block passage of any future coronavirus relief measure without a roll-call vote.
House and Senate leaders have been negotiating an interim measure to replenish the popular small-business loan program, which has already run dry of funding. But that has been held up for the past week since Democrats demanded that Congress also authorize additional funds for hospitals and state governments at the same time.
Juliegrace Brufke contributed.
Updated: 5:57 p.m.