Congress

House Rules Committee approves proxy voting, remote committee work

House chamber (House.gov) 

After months of debate, the House is on the cusp of allowing members who are not on the floor to cast votes during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The House Rules Committee approved a resolution on a May 14 party-line vote that would allow members to cast proxy votes on behalf of missing members and open the door to virtual electronic voting in the future. Under the revamped proposal, each proxy can represent up to 10 additional members on the House floor and each member must submit specific instructions for how their proxy should vote in every instance, including procedural votes.

It would allow committees to conduct official hearings and markups virtually, and would empower House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) to study and certify the use of technology for the purposes of casting virtual votes during the pandemic.

The changes have been in consideration for months, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Republicans have resisted the move, citing a range of concerns. House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) issued a report in March that embraced proxy voting but cast doubts on the security and constitutionality of virtual voting. However, as the House majority found itself unable to convene regularly during the crisis, he and others have become more receptive to the idea.

"The way we have done things will have to change, at least temporarily," McGovern said. "That means physical distancing, that means wearing masks and it means embracing technology during this pandemic so that we can hold virtual hearings and markups and vote remotely on the House floor."

Republicans offered more than 30 amendments to the resolution, including ones to table the idea until the Clerk of the House approves secure technology for proxy voting; to disallow remote committee operations or markups; to require House guidance to include details on how to authenticate members identities for remote or proxy voting; and to further study the issue of virtual voting.

"While I have no doubt the majority’s intentions are good when it comes to proposing these two changes, I believe they will fundamentally alter the nature of this institution and not for the better and I cannot support them," said Rules Committee ranking Republican Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

All the amendments were rejected, though McGovern assured Republicans that many of their requests would be taken into consideration as he crafts more-detailed guidance for members.

Legislatures around the world, many state and local governments within the U.S. and the Supreme Court have all shifted their proceedings online in the wake of the pandemic, but Republicans threw up a range of objections to the House following suit. They argued that the proposed rules change would upend centuries of House precedent, that bills passed under the new order would encounter constitutional challenge, that proxy voters would abuse their power and that it could open House proceedings up to cyber attack.

"When markups happen…how sure are we that the technology we intend to use is secure and protected from wrongdoers, whether hackers or foreign nations?" asked Cole.

Representative Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), an influential House member on cybersecurity issues, supports McGovern’s proposal but also echoed concerns that details about digital protections should be worked out before approving virtual voting.

"I believe it is now clear to many of my colleagues that we need to develop plans for an e-Congress capability to be used in times of crisis," Langevin said in a statement. "However, as someone who has spent more than a decade immersing myself in cybersecurity policy, I recognize that e-Congress systems would be attractive targets for malicious actors across the globe."

Democrats for their part took issue with a GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) proposal for reopening that would have members follow social distancing guidelines and erect new barriers within the halls of Congress. McCarthy's plan also envisions a "hybrid" approach to hearings where quorum rules remain in place and markups of legislations could not be done virtually. Allowances would be made only for at-risk members and those unable to travel to the Capitol.

Members and staff would be regularly tested under the plan "as test availability increases nationwide." The U.S. still lacks the capacity to conduct and process the millions of COVID tests per day that experts believe is necessary to track the virus’ spread and some members of Congress were adamant that they should not be prioritized or skip ahead in line.

"I do not want a test when my five-year-old grandson who had been sick could not even get a test, when a very popular pastor in my community died as he could not get a test, not because he lacked insurance, but simply because the tests have not been available in my community," said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.).

Other Republicans, including Cole, have instead asked for the House to continue operating under unanimous consent procedures, as it largely has for the past two months. However, detractors point out that this allows a single present member to demand a roll call vote, effectively forcing members to go back to the drawing board or return to the Capitol. McGovern pointed out that the process Republicans were asking to operate under now were themselves the product of rules changes during exigent circumstances. For example, the unanimous consent rule was first put in place during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a proponent of electronic remote voting and a witness at the hearing, said "of course" the founders could not have anticipated modern communication technologies like video conferencing that allows members to meet in real time --
"not in the same room but in the same box" through their computers and tablets.

By continuing to operate under unanimous consent, Hoyer said, the House could not have robust debate over legislation and committees could not hold oversight hearings or pass legislation. Additionally, he argued that requiring thousands of House staff and Capitol Hill workers to commute to Washington D.C. would put them at undue risk when safer options are available.

"What constituents want is not necessarily [for members] to sit in this chair or that chair," said Hoyer. "What they want them to do is to raise their voice, to protect their interest, to reflect their views and we live in an age where that can be done virtually without exposing others to risk."

The proposal now goes to the full House, where members will have to vote in person to adopt the new rules.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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