House Sets Bipartisan Panel to Look at Proxy Voting and Other Issues

April 22, 2020 by Dan McCue
House Sets Bipartisan Panel to Look at Proxy Voting and Other Issues
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., waits to speak with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday shelved a vote on a temporary change to House rules to allow proxy voting, announcing instead that a bipartisan panel will look at it and other issues relating to House operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

During a Democratic leadership call on Wednesday, Pelosi said the decision was made after she spoke with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

McCarthy will be part of the bipartisan group, as will Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the Rules Committee’s chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and ranking member Tom Cole, R-Okla., and the House Administration Committee’s chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and ranking member Rodney Davis, R-Ill.

The House Rules Committee was scheduled to convene in the Longworth House Office Building Wednesday to consider a resolution to temporarily allow an absent lawmaker to designate a colleague to cast a proxy vote on their behalf on measures pertaining to the pandemic.

In a sign of the times, the meeting was set to take place in one of the largest rooms on Capitol Hill to facilitate social distancing. The room is ordinarily used by the 42-member Ways and Means Committee. 

In addition to social distancing, the Office of the Attending Physician of the House recommended the use of face covering by attendees of the proceedings, including witnesses.

Chairman McGovern, D-Mass., released the text of the resolution Wednesday morning.

In an accompanying statement, McGovern said while everyone is hoping for the best as relates to the coronavirus pandemic, “we must prepare for the worst,” meaning a second wave of coronavirus cases in coming months.

“Should more lockdowns come quickly, I don’t want us to look back then and wish we made changes now,” McGovern said. “We cannot risk Congress grinding to a halt because of this virus. We need to act. That’s why this resolution implements not only remote voting by proxy for measures responding to the pandemic, but also enables virtual committee proceedings, and tasks the Committee on House Administration with leading a study examining the feasibility of remote participation on the House Floor.

“I don’t suggest these changes lightly, but this is an extraordinary time. We need to ensure we can get our work done on behalf of the American people,” the committee chairman said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday that proxy voting is only an initial step toward remote operations for the House.

In a letter, the Majority Leader urged the chamber’s Rules and Administration committees to explore the use of videoconferencing during emergencies to allow remote voting and remote committee action. He also asked that they focus on how Congress can conduct business in Washington in compliance with social distancing guidelines.

House Democrats are not unified over the role technology should play in congressional operations during the pandemic.

Many lawmakers, including members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus, think technology could be the solution to allow remote voting.

But concerns about cybersecurity, the methodology for testing possible tech portals, and the constitutionality of using them led McGovern to propose his more low-tech proxy solution.

In a foreshadowing of the expected Republican opposition to the proposal, Rep. McCarthy issued his own letter Tuesday, posing a series of questions to the House Democratic leadership.

Among other things, McCarthy wanted to know, “How many hours of advanced notice will be given to guarantee members have sufficient time to be present for any recorded votes in the House?” and “How would [McGovern’s proxy proposal] avoid potential abuses of power?”

McCarthy also questioned why the text of the proposal wasn’t released sooner to allow “the necessary scrutiny and member input that changing 200 years of House precedent would merit?”

Even if the measure had passed the Rules Committee Wednesday and been voted on by the full House on Thursday, it still was unclear when the new voting regime would have actually been put into practice.

“I have always said that I prefer changes to House procedure to be done in a bipartisan and collaborative way,” McGovern said late Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m grateful that the discussions that have taken place over the past few weeks have now led to this bipartisan effort,” he continued. “I’m hopeful that this formal working group can come to an agreement on changes that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Ranking Member Cole is a great partner who cares deeply about this institution and I look forward to working with him to figure out solutions to some of these challenges.

“This pandemic has devastated communities across the country and exposed the urgent need for Congress to be better prepared for whatever emergencies the future may bring,” McGovern said. “This is an extraordinary time and it requires a greater sense of urgency by all members to figure out how we operate during times of crisis. We are hearing from experts that things could be worse in the fall. I hope they’re wrong, but we must be prepared. The status quo doesn’t cut it. I hope we can make these difficult decisions together, and I remain optimistic we can get there. Inaction is not an option.”

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