The House of Representatives, for the first time in its 231-year history, is allowing its members to vote without being physically present on the floor, a move Republicans say is unneeded.
The Democratic-run House on Friday evening approved a resolution temporarily changing its rules to allow designated members to cast other members’ votes per the absent lawmakers’ instructions. The measure passed in a 217-189 vote, according to preliminary tallies. While proxy voting has been allowed in House committees in the past, the change allows it for floor votes for the first time ever.
House Democrats say the change is needed to let the chamber get back to conducting business on a close-to-normal basis during the coronavirus pandemic, while keeping lawmakers from risking falling ill to the virus. Republicans say it goes too far and other, less-sweeping changes could be made and still keep members safe.
Ahead of Friday’s vote, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, said the change would set a precedent that could be misused later. He also said it raises legal concerns.
“A move to any other kind of procedure that involves members not being physically present in the chamber to vote and to make a quorum will put the legislation passed by those methods at risk of court challenges” he said at the committee’s meeting Thursday.
In a statement Wednesday with two other GOP lawmakers, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, Cole went further, saying the change “facilitates only legislative theater while enabling the most significant power grab in the history of Congress, leaving our constituents’ voices shut out of the real lawmaking process.”
“We don’t get to put this genie back in the bottle,” said GOP Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, in his appearance before the committee, said the change was necessary to ensure the House is able to function, especially if the pandemic becomes more intense in the fall. But the Maryland Democrat said it also reflects developments in technology not foreseen by the Founding Fathers.
“None of us arrived by horse and buggy today,” he said. “This is about ensuring that the Congress of the United States can act even if it can’t get its members into a particular room, including the House chamber.”
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The proxy authority is expected to be available for 45 days and could be renewed for another 45 days by the House speaker “in consultation” with others, including the minority leader. Members would have to receive written authorization to cast the votes of others, which would also be posted publicly. A member would be limited to having only 10 proxies at a time.
The change also allows proxies to count for purposes of declaring a quorum of the House, a big worry for Republicans. Hoyer said a previous change, the practice of allowing some non-controversial business to be conducted by unanimous consent, with only two members in the chamber, arose out of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
In addition, the resolution lets committees meet and vote on legislation remotely and provides for the head of the House Administration Committee to certify technology allowing for remote voting on the House floor and put it in place. The latter item, because the decision would be made by one person, also has raised Republican concerns.
Republicans had proposed a slower, phased-in approach, with committees coming back to Washington, D.C., first to work on priority legislation and calling the full House back for votes only after several bills were ready to be voted on.
Proxy voting was allowed in committees before being prohibited with the 104th Congress when Republicans won mid-term elections in 1994, but has never been allowed for floor votes.
The House on Friday evening was also expected to vote along party lines to approve a $3 trillion coronavirus aid package. The sweeping measure represents Democrats’ initial offer in negotiations over Washington’s next response to the crisis.
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This is an updated version of a report first published on May 14, 2020.