House panel unveils rules changes to allow remote voting, hearings

House panel unveils rules changes to allow remote voting, hearings
© Greg Nash

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) on Wednesday unveiled a measure that would allow a form of remote floor voting and virtual committee hearings so that lawmakers can continue legislative operations while away from the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic.

The resolution would allow proxy voting, in which absent House members could authorize other members physically present in the House chamber to cast votes on their behalf. It would also permit virtual committee proceedings and authorize a study on how the House could use technology to allow members to participate in floor debate remotely.

"Experts are warning that we could see a second surge of coronavirus cases in the coming months. Should more lockdowns come quickly, I don’t want us to look back then and wish we made changes now. We cannot risk Congress grinding to a halt because of this virus. We need to act," McGovern said in a statement.

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McGovern's committee will vote Wednesday evening to advance the resolution to the House floor. The full House is expected to vote on the rules changes on Thursday.

The 13-member Rules panel typically meets in a small room on the third floor of the Capitol. But in order to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, the Rules Committee will instead meet in the cavernous House Ways and Means Committee room — the setting for President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE's impeachment inquiry hearings last fall — to ensure everyone can be at least 6 feet apart.

McGovern's office noted in a statement that the Office of the Attending Physician is advising people attending Wednesday's hearing to wear face coverings.

Republicans are not expected to back the proposed rules changes, arguing that lawmakers should still show up to vote in person. The House GOP leadership issued a notice on Tuesday urging members to vote against the resolution before the text was publicly released Wednesday morning.

“To be sure, there are appropriate precautions and adaptations we can and should follow. But I believe we already have existing tools to continue the people’s work without introducing brand-new, constitutionally untested processes that risk erosion of our normal practice. For even a temporary measure to deal with a crisis today becomes the precedent we follow tomorrow," Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeBipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to limit further expansion of 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Democrats sidestep budget deal by seeking 0B in emergency spending Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, said in a statement.

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House members will also be in Washington on Thursday to vote on interim legislation to renew funding for the small-business loans programs and provide additional funding for hospitals. The Senate passed the bill by voice vote on Tuesday.

McGovern had initially endorsed the idea of proxy voting last week as the best way to vote remotely if members are unable to travel or be in the Capitol during the pandemic.

But the resolution goes further than allowing proxy voting for bills on the House floor and expands virtual activity to committee hearings and markups, as some lawmakers had demanded.

Witnesses would be able to appear for hearings remotely and committee members could cast votes on bills considered in committee. The ability to conduct virtual committee activity also would not be limited to action on the coronavirus, meaning lawmakers could conduct work on annual measures such as appropriations.

The rules changes would only be in effect for 60 days and could be renewed if necessary.

In order to vote by proxy, a member would have to submit a signed letter to the House clerk authorizing another member to vote on their behalf and stating how they should vote on the legislation up for a vote.

In the case of an unscheduled vote, such as a procedural motion, the House would hold the vote open to allow time for absent members to send voting instructions to their proxies.

Members would also be able to revoke or change their proxies if needed, either by showing up to vote themselves or sending another letter to the House clerk.