House eyes advantages of proxy voting beyond pandemic

As mask mandates at the Capitol dissolve and officials prepare to reopen the building to the public after two years of pandemic, House members are debating whether it’s worth keeping proxy voting in some form.  

Employers around the country are starting to call staffers back to offices or put limits on remote work, and lawmakers are now weighing how much flexibility they should keep for their own workplace.  

Proxy voting is currently authorized through the end of this month, but it has repeatedly been extended since House Democrats first enacted it in May 2020 so that any member who was sick or quarantining could still cast votes on behalf of their constituents.     

Both parties are in widespread agreement that in-person votes and committee meetings are ideal to help build relationships that ease the legislative process.  

But many lawmakers, particularly Democrats who backed proxy voting from the start, argue it would be practical to continue allowing it for special circumstances such as a family emergency or a natural disaster back home.   

“I see a number of cases in which it may be appropriate to continue having it as an option — not as a preference, not as a practice — but as an option, such as when members may be ill, have to care for a sick loved one, or welcome a new child,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at a Rules Committee hearing on Thursday about the future of proxy voting and virtual committee meetings.  

Other legislatures around the world already do just that. Spain’s parliament, for example, has long allowed its members to cast votes remotely under limited circumstances such as illness or parental leave.    

Every Republican present at the time voted against establishing proxy voting in 2020. Many went on to sign a lawsuit led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to challenge its constitutionality.  

But since then, scores of Republicans ultimately embraced proxy voting when they became sick with COVID-19 or simply as a matter of convenience, such as when several attended the Conservative Political Action Conference last year.   

Even some members of McCarthy’s leadership team have cast votes by proxy, including House GOP Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer (Minn.).  

McCarthy has nonetheless vowed to eliminate proxy voting if Republicans take over the chamber next year.   

Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, on Thursday rejected the idea of allowing proxy voting to continue for any reason.  

During the Rules Committee hearing, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) noted that he could only participate virtually because he tested positive for COVID-19.  

At least nine other House members have also tested positive for the virus in the last week, underscoring how the pandemic is still at large in Congress.  

“What would you suggest to the 7 million people whom we collectively represent, who would be deprived of the ability to opine on various different pieces of legislation that we’re considering on the floor because their representative happened to be diagnosed with this illness?” Neguse asked Davis.  

Davis replied that occasional absences have long been a fact of life in Congress, even if it means lawmakers can’t register votes on behalf of their constituents sometimes.  

“I would provide 200 years of precedent before this pandemic began,” he said. “There are hard decisions that have to be made.”  

But other Republicans have been less consistent in their opposition. 

More than three dozen GOP members signed a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week calling to “immediately terminate all proxy voting measures.”  

Just two days later, however, two of the Republicans who signed that letter — Reps. Michael Burgess (Texas) and Dan Bishop (N.C.) — cast votes by proxy.  

Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), a member of the House Rules Committee, acknowledged during Thursday’s hearing that he’s voted by proxy multiple times.   

Reschenthaler said that with Democrats only holding a narrow House majority, it’s ultimately in Republicans’ interest to maximize vote participation on their side. That’s been especially true at times when Democrats have had trouble passing bills on their own to due internal divisions.  

“With margins this thin, we should still be engaged in proxy voting because if we don’t, we negate any advantage we have,” Reschenthaler said.  

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.), a consistent opponent of proxy voting, argued that at a minimum the process should be reformed so that lawmakers must offer a specific reason for why they aren’t voting in person.  

Under the current system, lawmakers must file a letter with the House clerk stating that they are “unable to physically attend proceedings in the House chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.” But lawmakers in both parties have routinely voted by proxy for scheduling reasons unrelated to the pandemic, made apparent by the consistent spike in proxy votes on Mondays and Fridays when the House is in session.

“The overwhelming majority of members proxy voting are lying when they sign this piece of paper. We’ve all heard the anecdotes of people going to fundraisers – Democrats and Republicans, by the way. I’m not saying only the other side has abused this,” Gallagher said.  

“If nothing else, we have to change what’s on this piece of paper and stop lying,” he added.  

Democrats expressed openness to the idea.  

“People should have to attest that they are using the proxy procedure for a compelling personal, medical or family reason. And then at that point, it’s between that member and their constituents,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).   

In contrast to the House, the Senate has never implemented any form of remote voting during the pandemic despite calls from some senators. 

The lack of a remote option has underscored the fragility of Democrats’ threadbare majority in the evenly split Senate.   

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans emerged victorious on a vote they forced to roll back the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health care workers at federally funded facilities because six Democrats were absent. The measure won’t go anywhere in the House, but the vote still showed how absences can change the outcome of a vote.  

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, expressed openness to allowing some pandemic-inspired technological modernizations to remain an option despite his overall opposition to the remote proceedings.

Aside from proxy voting, lawmakers have also taken advantage of inviting witnesses who couldn’t travel to Washington to testify virtually before committees.  

“I do see some limited cases where I would agree this technology can be useful,” Cole said. “I don’t think I probably would ever come to the point that I think proxy voting is useful. But if those are the rules, I guarantee you I’ll play by the rules.”  

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic Elise Stefanik Guy Reschenthaler Jamie Raskin Joe Neguse Kevin McCarthy Michael Burgess Mike Gallagher Nancy Pelosi Proxy voting remote work remote workers Remote working Rodney Davis Steny Hoyer Tom Cole Tom Emmer

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