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Hoyer Wants Proxy Voting Plan and Technology for House

April 21, 2020 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says an emergency proxy-voting plan for members that could be voted on as soon as Thursday is a fine first step, but he would like to take a second look at technology that would enable lawmakers to do more of their actual jobs.

In a letter to Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Jim McGovern. D-Mass., chairs, respectively, of the Committee on House Administration and the House Rules Committee, Hoyer urges that they consider a set of recommendations that would enable remote voting and committee work, while also preparing Congress to work remotely even when back in Washington to comply with COVID-19-related social distancing guidelines.

Their letter comes as Congress stands poised to consider a new $500 billion coronavirus relief bill.

Though the situation remains fluid, the Senate could take up the bill late Tuesday, during its pro forma session.

If it does, Hoyer has suggested, the House could meet as early as Thursday morning to consider the bill.

However, there’s a catch, Hoyer said. As it stands now, it appears House Republicans will not allow the chamber to pass anything by unanimous consent. This would mean everyone would need to return to Capitol Hill to do a recorded vote.

That situation could be avoided if the House, as expected, votes Thursday on a significant, but temporary change to the chamber’s voting rules to allow for proxy voting as travel and large gatherings continue to pose public health risks.

McGovern made the proxy-voting and rule change proposal last week, in response to calls from within his caucus for leadership to establish a system for remote voting to allow the House to continue legislative business during the ongoing crisis.

Many lawmakers, including the Problem Solvers Caucus and Hoyer himself, had hoped that technology could be the solution to allow remote voting, but concerns about cybersecurity, outside intrusion and lack of time for testing led McGovern and House leadership to move forward with a low-tech proxy solution.

The change would allow an absent lawmaker to designate a colleague to vote on House floor matters on their behalf.

Under McGovern’s plan, House members who remained in their district would send a letter, electronically, to the clerk to authorize another member to vote on their behalf and would provide exact instruction on how to vote. The authorization could be updated as procedural or other unexpected votes arise during the session.

Members able and willing to vote in person on their own behalf could still do so. Members physically present would be eligible to cast votes on behalf of their colleagues.

But Hoyer’s letter appears to throw cold water on the proposal as it stands.

“As you know, I have already indicated my clear preference for voting by the use of video-conferencing technology that millions of Americans now use to conduct business,” Hoyer wrote. “These systems allow one to see and identify the person who is speaking and hear what is being said with little doubt about the identity of the participant. 

“Used for the purposes of floor and committee business, there would be little doubt who voted aye or nay. As, invariably, such action is performed in public and is public record, the issue of security appears to be minimal. While any distance-voting is less optimal than in-person voting or debating in committee or on the floor of the House, the sound and image of the member doing so virtually is far superior to the utilization of proxies.”

Hoyer goes on to suggest the McGovern plan falls short because it fails to put in place procedures to allow committees to do their work in full, including markup and hearings.

“We must update our rules explicitly to allow remote committee proceedings or change the rules to define ‘present’ in a way that allows for member participation through an approved video-conferencing platform,” Hoyer said. “We might also consider amending the rules to delegate authority for establishing virtual practices for committees to the Committee on House Administration in order to ensure that there is a single clearing-house for best practices and developing new strategies.”

Hoyer noted that even after the Capitol complex reopens for legislative business, it will be likely members and staff will need to continue to practice social distancing for some time to come.

“By having a clear plan in place for how committees can safely conduct hearings and markups virtually, it will be easier to schedule floor action in a way that protects the safety of members and staff when we are able to vote in person in the Capitol,” he said.

Hoyer stressed that the House must show the American people that lawmakers are continuing to work on their behalf.

“Members participate daily in tele-conferences with one another, in virtual meetings with constituents and district leaders, and in video and phone discussions on how best to help state and local officials fight the coronavirus while shaping additional legislation to help workers in our economy,” Hoyer said. “Enabling the House to work remotely, when necessitated by an emergency situation as determined by the Speaker in consultation with the Minority Leader, will make it clear to those we serve that their representatives are doing their part in this crisis. It will also ensure that the House can conduct its oversight of the administration’s relief efforts properly and fully.” 

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