The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives plans to break with 200 years of precedent this week by allowing members of Congress to vote by designated proxy during the coronavirus pandemic. The voting by proxy plan would negate cybersecurity risks posed by a true remote voting system and only allows for narrow, limited use of proxies, though some GOP legislators are trying to raise a ruckus around it. The top Republican on the House Rules Committee, Representative Tom Cole, characterized the plan as “wimpy.”
Remote voting is probably constitutional given the considerable leeway given to Congress to determine its own rules. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and members of both parties were initially skeptical, though Democrats have settled on the proxy plan to restore some normalcy to votes after Republicans forced disruptive roll-call votes that required members travel back to DC to approve a coronavirus relief bill. Per BuzzFeed News, this week the House is preparing for a vote to allow members who cannot attend in person due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions to name another representative as their direct proxy for voting purposes. Roll Call reported the vote may happen as soon as Thursday.
“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,” House Rules Committee chairman Representative Jim McGovern wrote in a statement last week, according to BuzzFeed. “There would be no ability to give a general proxy. Members would have to direct each and every vote.”
The measures being discussed do not include allowing representatives to remotely attend committee hearings or work on legislation. Pelosi has stated that the Democrats only intend to invoke the power sparingly and, for now, only on issues directly relating to the pandemic. Democrats have generally been wary that the conservative-controlled Supreme Court could intervene if they stop the plan, with unclear and potentially sweeping consequences.
Some Republicans in opposition to the plan have sought to portray any attempt by Democrats to change rules without bipartisan support as a betrayal of democratic norms. (Heh.) Multiple GOP legislators—including Representatives Jim Jordan, Clay Higgins, and Andy Harris—told reporters that they opposed the idea on the grounds of tradition though ultimately lack the power to stop it, according to BuzzFeed. Jordan specifically cited the question of what would happen during procedural votes, stating, “It’s supposed to be in person in a debate. Because, I mean, we’re [a] representative democracy, and you need someone there representing the constituents back home and fighting for the positions and issues that you told them you’re going to fight for.”
“... If they’re determined to do it, and they have the votes, obviously they can,” Jordan added. “They can get it done. I think it’s just wrong, just flat out wrong.”
A number of Republican legislators returned to the Capitol last week in what they characterized as a protest against Democratic leadership’s refusal to force in-person votes.
“It was probably more dangerous to get here during the Civil War,” Cole added. “Congress looks pretty wimpy here, in my view.”
Politico wrote that some rumors have been circulating that there could be a “scenario in which nearly half of the House openly defies the new rules”
Some GOP legislators did sign on to a bipartisan letter last month asking for House leaders to allow remote voting, while New York Representative Elise Stefanik attacked the proxy voting plan as not going far enough to ensure remote voting. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Republicans on Sunday that he had not yet decided whether to support Pelosi’s plan.
The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, has not approved any such plan. GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has shot down the idea as fundamentally changing the chamber’s rules and, according to Politico, recently killed an attempt by Senator Rand Paul to add remote voting language to a bill.