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House Rules Committee approves remote voting during pandemic
The House Rules Committee on Thursday advanced a measure to enact a set of changes that will allow lawmakers to vote and hold meetings remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.
The full House is slated to adopt the rules changes on Friday, when lawmakers are also planning to vote on Democrats' $3 trillion coronavirus relief package.
Enacting the changes will allow House Democrats to revive legislative and oversight work that has largely been on hold for the last two months due to safety concerns about gathering all 430 members and their staffs together in the Capitol during the pandemic.
The Rules Committee approved the resolution along party lines, 8-4, after six hours of debate with dozens of failed GOP amendments to limit the changes, foreshadowing what's expected to also be a partisan vote when it hits the House floor given the widespread opposition from Republicans to voting remotely.
The changes would enable proxy voting, in which absent lawmakers could authorize colleagues physically present in the House chamber to cast votes on their behalf. But a single member would be limited to serving as a designated proxy for a maximum of 10 members, meaning that dozens of lawmakers would still have to be physically present in the Capitol. And any lawmakers who still want to cast their own votes in person could still do so.
Committees would also be permitted to conduct hearings, depositions and markups of legislation virtually. There would be some flexibility for committees to conduct business meetings either in a "hybrid" setting with some lawmakers in a room and others participating remotely - which the Senate has done in recent days - or with everyone dialing in from afar.
The measure further authorizes the House Administration Committee to study the feasibility of using technology to conduct remote voting in the House and provide certification upon determining that the technology is secure.
Democrats initially planned to vote on similar rules changes last month, but decided to hold off to see if bipartisan talks with Republicans would bear fruit.
Democrats have opted to plow ahead without an agreement but noted that they would incorporate some GOP suggestions such the "hybrid" committee proceedings and only allowing committees to use technologies approved by the Chief Administrative Officer.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Reps. Tom Cole (Okla.) and Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republicans on the Rules and Administration committees, outlined a proposal last week to reconvene committees with enhanced social distancing measures, such as installing plexiglass on committee daises and limiting the number of floor votes each week.
The GOP-controlled Senate has been in session for the last two weeks, but House Democratic leaders have been reluctant to call all members back to Washington, a coronavirus hot spot, for the long term given the chamber's far larger number of members.
But Democrats insisted that the House should be able to use available technologies to conduct business in the safest possible way.
"Why, when we have the technology that allows us to do it virtually, do we put lives at risk?" said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a member of the bipartisan talks. "If we have the ability to do something virtually which does not in any way denigrate our democracy or institution or the rights of the minority party or enhance the rights of the majority party, why don't we do it?"
Republicans warned that the changes would undermine the traditional nature of Congress in which people gather together to debate legislation and risked encountering technological hiccups.
"I'm personally deeply concerned about the precedent this sets for the institution," Cole said. "No longer will members be required to sit together in a room. Instead, we will lose that fundamental piece of our institution's character. I think that's a grave loss for us as members and for the country."
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) countered that the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic meant that Congress should adapt accordingly.
"A lot has changed since the first Congress. None of us arrived by horse and buggy today. The story of the people's House is the story of change and adaptation to meet the needs of the times," McGovern said.
Under the proxy voting system, members would have to send a letter to the House clerk designating a proxy and providing exact instructions for each floor vote. Members' votes by proxy would later be read aloud during the vote.
The House clerk's website would publicly post a list of designated proxies, in addition to the Congressional Record listing each of the members who voted by proxy.
But before proxy voting can begin, House members will have to gather en masse one more time on Friday to adopt the rules changes. The House sergeant-at-arms and Capitol physician sent guidance to lawmakers on Thursday encouraging everyone to wear facial coverings, maintain six feet of distance and avoid elevators.
As with the last time the House convened last month to pass coronavirus relief legislation, the number of lawmakers in the chamber at a time will be staggered by alphabetical order during each roll call vote with officials disinfecting the room in between.
Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), a Rules Committee member, candidly described how she was "scared to death" getting on a plane the day before to travel to Washington, arguing that it was unnecessary to risk contagion if there are available alternatives.
"I have a preexisting condition. And when I got on the plane yesterday, I was scared to death," Torres said. "There were people in the screening area of the [Transportation Security Administration] process that were much too close for my own comfort. And I made a commitment to my staff, to my family, that if that plane was more than 70 percent occupied and there were people stepping over each other, that I would immediately get off of it before taking off."
"Because I am not willing to risk my life for this. And I don't think that we should be asking our staffs to risk their lives simply because we're afraid of a new system of working under extreme conditions," she said.