House Report Tables Remote Voting by Members of Congress

March 25, 2020by Katherine Tully-McManus, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)
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WASHINGTON — Remote voting is not coming to the House anytime soon, according to a House Rules Committee report. But some advocates say the report didn’t fully consider the options available and members are still pushing for emergency alternatives.

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern is not recommending remote voting as the solution to avoid bringing lawmakers back to Washington to vote on the nearly $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, but he is open to passing the bill by a voice vote or unanimous consent.

A public report and letter sent to lawmakers Monday night outlines the options for voting procedures during this unprecedented pandemic that is spreading across the country and even the Capitol.

“Clearly, the quickest and likely best path forward is for Congress to pass that measure by unanimous consent or by voice vote. Short of that, there are a few difficult options that we can consider utilizing,” McGovern, D-Mass., wrote in a letter to his colleagues.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., endorsed the report’s conclusion Tuesday morning on MSNBC.

“My hope that while we’re in the red zone here that we get across the finish line and we can do so in a way that we can bring it to the floor under unanimous consent,” Pelosi said, referring to the third installation of an economic stimulus package hashed out by Congress and the White House.

She said if they can’t get unanimous consent, the House will need to return to Washington and either amend the Senate’s bill or pass their own and go to conference.

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, told CQ Roll Call in a statement that a unanimous consent vote could be possible if the package the House considers is bipartisan.

“Under existing House Rules, adopting a COVID-19 package under unanimous consent is the most realistic way to avoid members traveling back and forth to D.C. to vote,” David said.

But he called provisions in the House Democrats’ own stimulus bill a “liberal wish list,” and warned that if Democrats don’t drop some provisions, “we won’t be able to pass this much-needed relief for Americans by UC or by any other voting method.”

The McGovern report was commissioned by Pelosi last week after pressure grew from rank-and-file lawmakers for leadership to identify alternatives to gathering 435 members in a room to vote, which makes following social distancing protocols nearly impossible.

Pelosi had previously shot down the idea of remote voting when raised by her caucus and reporters.

Reps. Mario Diaz Balart, a Florida Republican, and Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat, tested positive last week for the new coronavirus, and more than a half a dozen other House members are in self-quarantine due to contact with people who have been infected.

Voting remotely would be “one of the biggest rule changes in the last century, in one of the most critical institutions in our country,” the report says. It suggests that remote voting is not a viable option in the short term and highlights significant logistical and legal challenges.

“Although off-the-shelf products exist to allow a Member to videoconference their vote, for example, they have not been tested under the sort of pressure they would face from enemy states or other bad actors trying to force the system offline or prevent individual Members from accessing it,” the report says. “Such a system has to be extensively tested, not used for the first time on must-pass legislation.”

The advocacy group Demand Progress issued a rebuttal Tuesday morning to the Rules Committee report, saying that it “contains significant lacunae that undermine its conclusions,” and outlining the gaps perceived in the report, including lack of consideration of videoconference voting of the potential for an extended absence from the Capitol.

The report does not address proposals for House members to vote via an online video conference that can be publicly viewed by constituents and the media and in which roll call votes could be audible to all and recorded officially by the House clerk.

“Instead, it apparently contemplates the creation of an online tool where members push a button on an app to record a vote,” wrote Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress.

Schuman points out that while risks exist with any online system, one where there is public audio and visual confirmation of a lawmaker’s vote has more stopgaps than a push-button app system.

He suggests use of Zoom or a similar video conference tool, especially because Zoom is already a service approved for use by House employees and has been signed off by the chamber’s top cybersecurity office. The Chief Administrative Office has also approved the use of video conferencing systems including Office 365, VSee, WebEx and Skype.

The Rules Committee warned of potential security threats against an internet-based voting system, as well as possible legal challenges from opponents of legislation passed under such a system. It cautioned against trying a new system for the first time on massive legislation like the almost $2 trillion pandemic economic stimulus package.

The report outlines an array of options House leaders have to alter voting procedures to limit contact among members. The House could do what the Senate has implemented and call lawmakers back to the Capitol and hold the votes open for extended periods of time to allow members to trickle in and out of the chamber and avoid crowding. The report suggested “sanitizing voting stations between uses” and “controlling how many people are in the chamber and their proximity to each other.”

Paired voting is one of the more complex options. It would allow a member unable to vote to work with another member who planned to vote the opposite way and convince them to vote “present.”

This was most recently used in the Senate during the contentious confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski intended to vote against the confirmation of Kavanaugh, but instead voted “present” to offset the absence of Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who was in Montana to attend his daughter’s wedding.

If more than 215 House lawmakers are in quarantine or unable to travel to Washington, the House could invoke a post-9/11 House rule to reset the quorum.

The House could implement a “provisional quorum,” which would be based on the number of members who are able to return to the Capitol. If a traditional quorum cannot be reached after 96 hours due to “natural disaster, attack, contagion, or a similar calamity rendering Representatives incapable of attending the proceedings of the House,” a lower threshold for a quorum could be set.

The report notes that this rule was added three years after the 9/11 attacks following “years of study by the Rules Committee and outside experts.”

One potential rule change suggested in the report is the allowance of proxy voting. In this scenario, an absent member would allow a colleague to vote on their behalf. In such a scenario, the minority and majority leaders could serve as proxies for the members of their respective parties for a verbal roll call vote. Members able and willing to vote in person on their own behalf could still do so. But proxy voting requires a change to House rules.

Earlier Monday, Reps. Katie Porter and Eric Swalwell of California sent McGovern a letter co-signed by 70 Democrats urging a temporary change to House rules to allow for remote voting during national emergencies.

“Unfortunately, during such circumstances, requiring members to vote in person may pose public health risks or even be physically impossible for persons under quarantine,” they wrote. “We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place.”

Arkansas Republican Rick Crawford, who sponsored a bill with Swalwell that would enable members of Congress to virtually participate in committee hearings and to vote remotely on suspension bills from their home districts, continued to push for a remote voting option on Twitter after the House Rules report was released.

“Since 2013, I’ve introduced legislation that would allow House members to vote remotely in times of a nat’l crisis. @RepSwalwell and I introduced this a few weeks ago for a time such as this. Continuity of government is critical. Let’s act! #RemoteVoting,” he tweeted.

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©2020 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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