Pelosi formally authorizes remote voting for 45-day period

Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday formally authorized a 45-day period during which House members can cast votes remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the historic rules changes that the House adopted last week, Pelosi can invoke the authority to allow remote voting after receiving a notification from the sergeant-at-arms in consultation with the Capitol physician that there is a public health emergency due to the coronavirus. 

Lawmakers unable to travel to the Capitol to cast votes in person can now authorize a colleague to serve as a proxy to vote on their behalf. 

Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues on Wednesday that she was “hereby designating a ‘covered period’” and attached a notice from House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving stating that there is “an ongoing public health emergency due to a novel coronavirus.”

The covered period starts Wednesday and will last into early July. But the authority for remote voting can be renewed for additional 45-day periods if needed.

The House is expected to be in session next Wednesday and Thursday to vote on bills to extend government surveillance powers and provide more flexibility for the small business loans offered through the Paycheck Protection Program.

The two parties remain far apart on the provisions of future coronavirus relief measures or if there’s even a need for Congress to act now. But Pelosi said Wednesday that the bill slated for a vote next week, from Reps. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas), to provide more time for businesses to rehire workers and cover non-payroll expenses offered a “quick fix on how we could make this work better.”

A single lawmaker can serve as a proxy for up to 10 colleagues, meaning that dozens will still need to be physically present in the House chamber next week and for future votes during the pandemic.

The proxy voting system is optional and lawmakers are still free to come to the Capitol to cast their own votes if they prefer. But lawmakers who are sick, have underlying health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus or otherwise face difficulties traveling to Washington will have the option to vote remotely as a way to minimize the risk of contagion.

House Republicans, who widely opposed adopting the rules changes, are still mostly planning to return to the Capitol to vote in person.

But one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Francis Rooney (Fla.), who is retiring — did support the rules changes and plans to use the proxy voting system going forward. Rooney was absent during last Friday’s vote to adopt the rules changes, but a spokesman told The Hill that he would have voted in support had he been present.

“We have important work to do over the coming months & it cannot be delayed; however, it isn’t necessary to put people at risk in the process,” Rooney tweeted on Monday.

But most Republicans argue that Congress should still conduct its work in person during the pandemic as they follow President Trump’s lead of pushing for the economy to reopen despite public health experts warning against going back to the pre-pandemic normal too soon.

The GOP-controlled Senate has been convening in person over the last two weeks with some new safety measures, such as “hybrid” committee hearings where some senators and witnesses participate by video conference. 

“Over here in the United States Senate, the lights are on, the doors are open, and we are working for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech on Wednesday. “And across the rotunda, in the House? Crickets.”

House Democratic leaders maintain that they are following guidance from the Capitol physician that it would be unsafe to reconvene the lower chamber — which has more than four times as many members as the Senate — for the long term while the nation’s capital remains under a stay-at-home order through June 8.

The House has only convened for a day at a time since March to pass coronavirus-related legislation, most recently on Friday to pass Democrats’ sweeping $3 trillion relief package and the remote voting changes.

House officials have established new safety protocols for recent floor votes that stagger the number of lawmakers on the floor at a time by alphabetical order, although it results in a single roll-call vote taking more than an hour to complete.

Under the new proxy voting system, members must submit signed letters designating proxies to vote on their behalf. The letters must provide specific instructions for each vote, including procedural ones.

The House clerk’s office is instructing lawmakers to send the letters to a designated email address, as well as mail a hard copy.

Guidance from the House Rules Committee advises lawmakers to keep their phones close by in case an unexpected vote, such as a motion to adjourn, comes up. Members would then have to send written instructions to their proxies once they’re informed of the vote.

Lawmakers voting by proxy have also been advised to monitor the House floor from afar to ensure their proxies have voted on their behalf as instructed. 

The votes of lawmakers voting by proxy will be announced from the floor during each vote. Lawmakers serving as proxies will state: “As the member designated by [member’s name], pursuant to H. Res. 965, I inform the House that [member’s name] will vote yea/nay/present.”

The rules changes adopted last Friday also allow committees to conduct remote hearings, markups and depositions by videoconference. Such meetings can either be fully remote or have some lawmakers meeting in person with others participating by videoconference like in the Senate.

Tags Chip Roy Coronavirus Dean Phillips Donald Trump Francis Rooney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Proxy voting
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