House Democrats unveil proposed rule changes to allow remote voting

House Democrats unveil proposed rule changes to allow remote voting
© Greg Nash

House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a measure that would allow for a form of remote voting and virtual committee work as a way to ensure that lawmakers can proceed with legislative business while away from the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic.

The House is expected to vote on the rules changes on Friday, alongside Democrats' $3 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The proposed changes would allow proxy voting, in which absent lawmakers could authorize colleagues physically present in the House chamber to cast floor votes on their behalf.

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It would also allow committees to conduct hearings, depositions and markups of legislation remotely. Such committee meetings could be done with proceedings conducted in a committee room with some members participating remotely — a "hybrid" format the Senate has also recently implemented — or with everyone participating from remote locations.

Such changes would only be allowed for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats have been pressing for allowing remote voting over the last two months since they have mostly stayed away from the Capitol out of safety concerns over traveling to a city that is one of the nation's coronavirus hot spots. But Republicans, who have been resistant to allowing remote voting as they back President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE's calls to reopen the economy, are expected to oppose the changes.

The proposed rules changes are similar to what Democrats initially planned to vote on last month, before they decided to hold off to allow discussions with a bipartisan task force to study virtual options for the House.

The task force — which included House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire MORE (D-Md.), Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyJudge throws out House GOP lawsuit over proxy voting Republicans fear disaster in November Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker MORE (R-Calif.) and the chairs and ranking Republicans on the Rules and Administration committees — has been discussing proposals for the last few weeks but was unable to reach an agreement.

Still, Democrats have vowed to move forward with allowing remote voting even if Republicans don't get on board.

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Hoyer, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenDemocrats accuse Barr of helping Trump distract from coronavirus State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November FEC commissioner resigns, leaving agency without a quorum again MORE (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement that "while we could not come to an agreement, we have incorporated several Republican ideas into this resolution."

"We will now move forward on these temporary emergency procedures to ensure the House can continue fully working for the people during this public health and economic emergency. The time has come to act — further delay is not an option," Hoyer, McGovern and Lofgren said.

The resolution unveiled on Wednesday has some modifications from what Democrats originally proposed last month. One difference, for instance, is that lawmakers would be limited to serving as a designated proxy for up to 10 other members.

Committees would also be strictly limited to using technologies approved by the chief administrative officer. Many committees have already been testing those software platforms with virtual forums resembling hearings in recent weeks.

Republicans outlined their ideas last week for how the House could resume business with enhanced physical distancing measures, such as installing Plexiglass dividers at high-traffic areas like security checkpoints or in committee rooms along the dais, allowing "hybrid" hearings with some lawmakers participating remotely and limiting the number of floor votes each week.

The House has already started implementing new safety measures for floor votes, such as the votes last month on an interim coronavirus relief measure to renew funding for small-business loans and creating a select committee on the coronavirus crisis. For those votes, House officials staggered the number of members in the chamber at a time by alphabetical order and encouraged the use of facial coverings.

But McCarthy and Reps. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHouse approves .3 trillion spending package for 2021 Multiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert House panel advances health bill with B in emergency COVID-19 funds MORE (Okla.) and Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Key 48 hours loom as negotiators push for relief deal Illinois Republican tests positive for coronavirus The Hill's Campaign Report: Even the Post Office is political now | Primary action tonight | Super PACS at war MORE (Ill.) — the respective ranking Republicans on the Rules and Administration committees — have said they opposed conducting committee markups of legislation remotely "given the mountain of unanswered questions regarding how more complex and involved procedural maneuvers would work in a remote setting."

They also blasted the proposed changes in a joint statement on Wednesday and called proxy voting "dangerous."

"As we have said from the start, any change to centuries-old rules of the House should only be done in a bipartisan way that achieves consensus. This proposal fails that critical test and would forever alter our democratic institution for the worse," McCarthy, Cole and Davis said.

There is precedent for proxy voting in House and Senate committees, although the practice was discontinued in the lower chamber in the 1990s under then-Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.).

The Democratic resolution would also authorize a study on the feasibility of using technology to conduct remote voting in the House and provide certification if there is a secure way to do it.

But until then, members could utilize proxy voting to cast roll call votes if they are unable to be at the Capitol in person. Members would have to send a letter to the House clerk to designate a proxy and provide exact instructions for each vote.

A list of designated proxies would be posted publicly to the House clerk's website, in addition to a list of members voting remotely printed in the Congressional Record after each vote. Members' votes by proxy would also be read aloud during the vote.

The move by House Democrats to allow remote voting follows changes by other legislative bodies in the U.S. and around the world to follow heath guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic. The state legislatures in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have been casting votes on bills by video conference and conference call.

The United Kingdom last month also began allowing "hybrid" proceedings in which a limited number of its parliament members can be physically present in the chamber during debates, with others participating by video conference.

The European Parliament began allowing its members to vote by email, while most members of Spain's parliament have been using a system in place for several years that allowed lawmakers to vote remotely while on parental leave or recovering from a serious illness.

--This report was updated at 12:14 p.m.