Rules Chairman Devises Path Forward for Remote Voting by Congress

April 16, 2020 by Dan McCue
House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – After weeks of calls for some kind of tech-based system to allow members of Congress to work from their districts during the COVID-19 pandemic, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee proposed a decidedly low-tech alternative — having another member vote for you.

Under this plan, any member unable to travel to Washington due to the pandemic could provide specific instructions for each vote to a fellow member who is able to be physically present in the House chamber and authorized to cast those votes on their behalf,” Rules Committee Chair James McGovern, D-Mass., said in a written statement.

“A member casting a vote on behalf of another member would be required to have exact direction from that member on how to vote and would have to follow that direction,” he continued. “There would be no ability to give a general proxy. Members would have to direct each and every vote.”

McGovern’s proposal stresses that the voting authority he’s talking about would be temporary and exclusively tied to the pandemic.

It would require a member remaining in their district to transmit — including electronically, if they wished — a letter to the clerk authorizing another member to vote on their behalf and providing exact instruction, which must be followed, on how that member should vote for each scheduled vote.

In addition, McGovern said a process would be put in place to allow members to update their instructions in case of additional votes, including procedural votes.

Further, under the plan, a member in the chamber who has been authorized to cast votes on behalf of another member will have no discretion in casting those votes.

Finally, remote votes through a proxy would count as normal in the vote tally, and count towards achieving a quorum.

Waiting for Options

Hours before McGovern’s proposal was made public, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed back at suggestions that she was opposed to remote voting and said she very much looked forward to whatever the chair recommended.

“Until we have an appropriate way to do it, we can’t do it,” she said. 

“What we’re waiting for are options,” Pelosi continued. “What are the options under the Constitution and in terms of secure technology?”

Asked again later about her perceived opposition to remote voting, Pelosi reiterated that she hasn’t been “negative on it.”

“What I’ve been negative on is the status quo because so far, we haven’t had any good options,” she said.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer weighed in on the issue on Wednesday, during his weekly briefing with reporters.

“This is a very difficult and challenging time, and we are looking closely at how remote voting can be done, but I was to stress that neither House Speaker Pelosi, or [Senate] Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or [House] Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy believe that it would be a good thing to make a regular practice of voting remotely.

“We need to have members come together, we need to have open, transparent hearings, we need to have exchanges on the floor, on amendments and on bills. That’s the way it ought to be done,” Hoyer said.

“Now, in an emergency situation … where we don’t have an ability to do that … then we do need an alternative, but we’re not there yet. … that said, I want to assure the American people it’s being worked on very hard.”

Turning specifically to the idea of holding committee hearings remotely, Hoyer said a number of ideas had been discussed, including using Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

“I even suggested using FaceTime, which is a technology millions and millions of people use,” Hoyer said. “This was not broadly supported.”

The bottom line, he said, “is we are looking at this very carefully to see how we can do it. But the idea, of course, is to get back into session, to have hearings, and to call witnesses.”

It’s Complicated

Rep. McGovern said he devised this plan after much consultation with experts and fellow members of Congress.

“This system would enable members to vote remotely in a secure way, without using the kind of technology that is susceptible to hacking or interference by foreign bad actors,” he said, adding that because it doesn’t rely on some new technology being stood up and vigorously tested, “it could give members a say on important legislation much more quickly.”

The rub is that putting McGovern’s remote voting plan in place would still require the House to agree to a temporary rule change via unanimous consent by voice vote.

If even a single member of the House objects to the plan, all of the members would have to come back to Washington and vote to implement it in person.

McGovern said he also discussed the need to get House committees working again, especially to provide oversight on the trillions of dollars being spent by the Trump administration to combat this pandemic.

“Making changes to the standing rules of the House and putting in place technology to allow for virtual hearings and markups is complicated and can’t be done overnight,” McGovern said. “But in the meantime, committees can hold briefings and roundtables to continue their work as we continue to work with the Committee on House Administration on these issues.”

In a bid for unanimous support for his plan, McGovern said “We don’t know how long this pandemic will threaten public health, or how long state stay at home orders will last. We all know, though, that Congress needs to be working, whether in person, remotely, or both.

“We should not wait for this pandemic to end to make changes to the rules that help us to do our jobs in such an unprecedented time. I hope my colleagues, Democratic and Republican, can work together to implement this temporary solution,” he concluded.

Congress

Rep. Neal Eyes Massive Coronavirus Relief, Climate and Infrastructure Package
Congress
Rep. Neal Eyes Massive Coronavirus Relief, Climate and Infrastructure Package

WASHINGTON — House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal's attitude toward legislating under a Democratic-led White House might aptly be described as "never let a crisis go to waste." The Massachusetts Democrat wants to take a page from his party's 2009 playbook, when the Obama administration took office amid the wreckage of... Read More

Opening of 117th Congress Will be Different Due to Pandemic
Congress
Opening of 117th Congress Will be Different Due to Pandemic

WASHINGTON — When the 117th Congress convenes in January, COVID-19 precautions will prevent the 435 House members from gathering in the chamber together, so opening day festivities of swearing in members and electing the speaker will look a little different. House leaders have begun discussing how to carry out... Read More

Lawmakers a Step Closer to Averting Dec. 11 Government Shutdown
Congress
Lawmakers a Step Closer to Averting Dec. 11 Government Shutdown

WASHINGTON — Top appropriators reached bipartisan agreement Tuesday on a framework for an omnibus spending package that would avoid a partial government shutdown next month. The compromise forged between the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees sets spending allocations for the dozen bills that fund federal agencies... Read More

Uncalled House Race in Iowa Grows Ever Tighter
2020 Elections
Uncalled House Race in Iowa Grows Ever Tighter
November 25, 2020
by Dan McCue

Throughout the 2020 election cycle a persistent narrative was just how divided the United States has become. But an as-yet uncalled House race in Iowa is taking the concept of a nation equally divided between Republicans and Democrats to a whole new level. Since Monday, the... Read More

Espaillat-Rooney Bill Boosts Funding and Cooperation in the Caribbean
Drugs
Espaillat-Rooney Bill Boosts Funding and Cooperation in the Caribbean
November 24, 2020
by Sean Trambley

WASHINGTON – Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan measure increasing funding to the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative to help combat corruption and illicit drug trafficking between the United States and Caribbean nations. Introduced by Reps. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., and Francis Rooney, R-Fla.,... Read More

Feinstein Won't Seek Top Democrat Spot on Judiciary Committee
U.S. Senate
Feinstein Won't Seek Top Democrat Spot on Judiciary Committee
November 24, 2020
by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON - Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Monday she will step down as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee when the 117th Congress convenes in January, apparently bowing to critics who believe she wasn't aggressive enough in her handling of Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court... Read More

News From The Well
scroll top