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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.

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