House leaders take vote-counting operations online

House leaders take vote-counting operations online
© Greg Nash

The coronavirus pandemic has forced House leadership in both parties to get creative in how they go about whipping votes as lawmakers largely work remotely during the crisis.

House leaders have long relied on figurative arm twisting and informal chats on the chamber floor to get members of their respective caucuses on the same page for key votes.

But with members spread out around the country due to the pandemic, the whip teams for both parties have been forced to adapt their tactics, shifting vote-tallying operations to digital platforms.

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The caucus has been holding bi-weekly calls, and House Democratic Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) said the "whip operation has its call every Wednesday," utilizing video conferencing tools like Zoom.

"It all depends which platform you're using to talk to members. Some seem to be a little less complicated than others, but I've been talking to a lot of members and they are getting used to it,” Clyburn told The Hill in an interview.

Republican Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseCheney clashes with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks GOP-Trump fractures on masks open up MORE (La.) said the virtual environment has underscored the importance of having strong relationships between colleagues, with whip teams keeping in close contact with members.

"Instead of them walking up to a member person-to-person [members of the whip team are] just calling those members individually," Scalise said.

"You know this isn't like some software that just sends a text message to somebody, it's an actual person reaching out to a colleague and talking to them about the legislation we're dealing with, and so those relationships are invaluable," he added.

Republican whip sources said while the changes to operations amid the pandemic have largely gone smoothly, it has also slowed the process down.

“Rather than whipping in person, on the House floor, texts and emails are now sent to relay all bill information to whips. Whips are then asked to call or text with their assigned members to take their pulse on the pending legislation,” one source close to the GOP whip operation told The Hill.

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The source added that while Congress “tends to resist change,” members have acclimated well, adding, "While the new system is just as effective, it does add some additional turnaround time and small tweaks are being looked at to speed up the process."

House lawmakers have largely been working from their home districts for weeks as members debate another round of coronavirus relief spending and prepare for the chamber's first proxy votes on Wednesday, when roughly 50 lawmakers are slated to vote remotely through colleagues present on the floor.

Republicans filed a lawsuit on the eve of the votes seeking to block the proxy system, which they have strongly opposed.

Washington, D.C., has remained under a stay-at-home order since April 1, forcing lawmakers to curb any regular in-person meetings. That order went into effect five days after the House passed its first major relief bill — the $2.2 trillion CARES Act — and around the time that whip teams shifted to working remotely.

Both parties have had to whip votes on a series of bills including most recently the mammoth $3 trillion relief package that Republicans panned as dead on arrival in the Senate. Democrats passed the measure on May 15, the same day the chamber approved remote voting.

Lawmakers will resume their business after the Memorial Day holiday this week with two days of scheduled votes on bills to extend government surveillance powers and offer small businesses more flexibility when using loans offered through the Paycheck Protection Program due to the pandemic.

Those votes will serve as a test of the rules changes that House Democrats adopted in an attempt to limit the number of members gathered together in the chamber during the pandemic.

Clyburn said the rule change to allow for proxy voting will also have an impact on the Democratic whip operation, presenting them with some challenges that could be difficult to navigate. 

The Democratic leader said that potential issues could arise from alterations made to bills in the Rules Committee or by a procedural motion, as well as by Republicans' use of the motion to recommit — a tool used by the minority party to alter legislation at the eleventh hour on the floor.

"Suppose a motion to recommit would be successful, then that changes the substance of the bill. So that's when our job would come in,” Clyburn said.

The Democratic leader said in the event of last-minute changes to a bill, the House’s new procedures during votes would allow the whip team to still get in touch with members not present. The procedures limit the number of members on the floor, significantly elongating vote times.

“We've got our plans in place so that, you know, we now stretch things out for social [distancing] and everything else; what used to be a 15-minute vote is now an hour and a half or more. That gives you time to deal with a motion to recommit,” Clyburn said.

“So that's one of the things that we have to stay on top of, making sure that the motions to recommit are done in such a way that people have enough time to inform their proxies on how they want to vote," he said.

House leaders say face time with colleagues over video conferencing tools like Zoom and Webex is key to helping them gauge levels of support for various bills ahead of votes, since they are not able to hold their traditional weekly gatherings with their teams on Capitol grounds.

“You do better if you're looking at people — I like ... to observe one's confidence without asking them to do something, I like to see facial expressions and body language and all of that," Clyburn said. "It's kind of hard to do this way. But it hasn’t been all that bad.”

Lawmakers said that one upside to the pandemic forcing much of Congress' business to go online is that it's been easier to secure guest speakers for meetings in a virtual setting.

“It's easier for them, some guests, to Zoom in rather than jumping on a plane and coming there," Clyburn said.

Scalise said Republicans have similarly been bringing in speakers and guests to talk on relevant topics during weekly calls and video meetings.

“We've had everybody from Treasury Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin, putting together the Paycheck Protection Program, to [White House] chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Trump wears mask during visit to Walter Reed Barr recommended Trump not give Stone clemency: report MORE when he first started in his role, and we've had heads of some of the big trade associations like the head of the National Restaurant Association and the head of a hotel association. So there's people that can get really good context to the challenges we're facing," Scalise said.

The Louisiana Republican said while there’s “just no replacement” for in-person contact, technology has played a pivotal role in helping the GOP whip team convey their message to members.

“It's amazing how quickly people have gotten, you know, kind of adjusted to taking care of business on the phone," he said.

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And when colleagues do raise concerns, Scalise said, he'll often try to approach them individually.

"When there's a member that has a question, I just call that member directly, and we can — we work through it.” 

--Updated at 9:50 a.m.