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House holds first-ever proxy votes during pandemic

House holds first-ever proxy votes during pandemic
© Bonnie Cash

Dozens of House members voted by proxy for the first time in the chamber’s history on Wednesday due to safety concerns posed by the coronavirus pandemic, despite Republicans suing Democrats over enacting the rules change. 

About 70 Democrats cast votes by proxy, meaning they authorized colleagues physically present in the House chamber to cast votes on their behalf.

Republicans, echoing President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE's calls to swiftly reopen the economy from coronavirus-inflicted shutdowns, made a point of urging their members to show up to the Capitol in person a day after filing a lawsuit in the D.C. District Court challenging the constitutionality of proxy voting.

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The first House vote that involved lawmakers voting by proxy was on bipartisan legislation, which the Senate passed by unanimous consent earlier this month, to sanction officials involved in human rights abuses against China’s Uighur Muslim minority. It passed 413-1, with only Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieHouse conservatives plot to oust Liz Cheney GOP lawmaker on Capitol protesters: 'I will not be deterred' by 'mob demand' Questions and answers about the Electoral College challenges MORE (R-Ky.) voting in opposition.

Most lawmakers in both parties ultimately traveled to the Capitol to vote in person. The Democrats voting by proxy amounted to roughly a third of the 233-member caucus and about 16 percent of the 432-member House.

But many from the West Coast and those with existing health issues used the available option to vote by proxy while health experts continue to warn of the risks involved with extensive travel during the pandemic. More than half of the 46 Democrats in the California delegation, for instance, chose to vote by proxy.

Two Democrats representing the congressional districts closest to the Capitol, Reps. Don Beyer (Va.) and Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinInauguration parties lose the glitz and glamour in 2021 This week: Tensions running high in Trump's final days Democratic lawmaker says 'assassination party' hunted for Pelosi during riot MORE (Md.), were the most popular proxies, voting on behalf of close to the maximum of 10 requests they could accept under the rules.

Democrats defended remote voting as a way to limit health risks in the Capitol during the pandemic in an era with technology that didn't exist during past crises in American history. 

“They had not the technology,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE (D-Md.) said of the nation's founders in the late 1700s. “And that's why they couldn't schedule a vote in 48 hours because the horses did not fly.”

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“Not a single one of my constituents, not one, voted for me so I would vote in this machine. Not one. Not one of them voted for me to vote in that machine,” Hoyer said in a fiery floor speech, gesturing to the electronic voting machines that House members have used since the 1970s. “What they wanted me to do is vote to represent them. And they really didn't care how I did that as long as it was accurate.”

But earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyMcCarthy supports Cheney remaining in leadership amid calls for her to step down The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden hits the ground running on COVID Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear MORE (R-Calif.) said he thought any legislation passed with proxy votes would be unconstitutional.

“The Constitution is very clear about this. The founders believed we should assemble,” McCarthy said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Republicans’ position makes it unclear whether even bipartisan legislation passed with proxy votes will be taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate or Trump. McCarthy pointed to recent comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief MORE (R-Ky.), who made a point of convening the upper chamber in person for much of this month, questioning the use of proxy voting.

For now, Republicans are still participating in House floor votes, while Democrats have moved full steam ahead with proxy voting.

“It’s playing a baseball game under protest. At the end of the game, we'll figure out who's right,” McCarthy said.

Wednesday marked the first time that the House conducted floor votes with members participating by proxy. But proxy voting itself isn’t new to Congress.

There is precedent of proxy voting in both House and Senate committees to advance legislation. The practice was banned in House committees in the 1990s under then-Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.), but proxy voting is still allowed in Senate committees.

The lawsuit filed by Republicans late Tuesday maintains that the Constitution declares Congress should “assemble” with a quorum of a minimum number of lawmakers present to do business, which they argue means assembling in person.

Democrats dismissed the lawsuit, pointing to legal precedent finding that each chamber of Congress has the authority to determine its own rules for proceedings.

“The House’s position that remote voting by proxy during a pandemic is fully consistent with the Constitution is supported by expert legal analyses,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils virus plan and urges patience | Fauci says it's 'liberating' working under Biden | House to move quickly on COVID-19 relief Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 On The Money: Pelosi says House will move immediately on COVID-19 relief | Biden faces backlash over debt | 900,000 more Americans file for unemployment benefits MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

“House Republicans’ sad stunt shows that their only focus is to delay and obstruct urgently-needed action to meet the needs of American workers and families during the coronavirus crisis,” Pelosi added.

The rules changes that the House adopted earlier this month along partisan lines allow virtual committee work by videoconference and proxy voting, but also authorized a study on the feasibility of remote voting using technology. 

The ability for lawmakers to vote remotely is allowed only during a period of 45 days at a time following certification from the House sergeant-at-arms and Capitol physician that there is a public health emergency due to the coronavirus. The Speaker can renew the remote voting authority again if deemed necessary.

Not a single Republican voted in favor of the rules changes earlier this month, but Rep. Francis RooneyLaurence (Francis) Francis RooneyGrowing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting Lawmakers express concern about lack of young people in federal workforce The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Today: Vaccine distribution starts, Electoral College meets. MORE (R-Fla.) tweeted a few days later that he supported them and would have voted in favor if he had been present in the Capitol that day.

A spokesman for Rooney initially told The Hill last week that Rooney intended to use the proxy voting system during the pandemic. But Rooney ultimately did not file to vote by proxy this week, as House GOP leaders urged any absent members to submit statements for the record instead.

Under the proxy voting system, members must submit letters to the House clerk officially designating proxies. They must send their proxies specific written instructions for each vote.

The names of lawmakers voting by proxy are also announced from the floor by their proxies during each vote.

Since April, House officials have also instituted safety protocols for floor votes, such as encouraging everyone to wear masks and staggering the number of members in the chamber at a time by alphabetical order. But the new system means that each roll-call vote now takes more than an hour to complete, followed by intermittent recesses so that custodial staff can disinfect the room.