The House on Friday adopted historic rules changes to allow lawmakers to cast votes and conduct committee meetings remotely during the coronavirus pandemic in an effort to resume legislative work that has been on hold amid safety concerns over gathering in the Capitol.
The vote to enact the resolution fell along party lines, 217-189, with three Democrats — Reps. Rick Larsen (Wash.), Elaine Luria (Va.) and Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.) — joining Republicans to vote no.
Lawmakers have been frustrated over the last two months that much of their usual legislative and oversight work has been effectively sidelined while they largely stayed away from Washington, D.C., out of concerns about traveling to and congregating in one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots.
The set of changes allows proxy voting, in which absent lawmakers can authorize colleagues to cast votes on their behalf, as well as virtual committee hearings, depositions and markups of bills by videoconference. It also authorizes the House Administration Committee to study the feasibility of remote voting using technology.
The debate over whether Congress should reconvene in person during the pandemic has become another flashpoint in the culture wars over reopening the nation’s economy, with President Trump and Republicans pushing for loosening restrictions while Democrats remain wary of risking more coronavirus outbreaks.
“Convening Congress must not turn into a super-spreader event,” said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “This is the type of adapting that this House has always done. Our founders did not vote by electronic device, but we do. Constituents decades ago couldn't watch floor proceedings live on C-SPAN or listen to them on the radio, but ours can.”
The GOP-controlled Senate reconvened last week with some new safeguards in place, such as encouraging facial coverings and partially remote hearings with some senators and witnesses participating by videoconference. But Democrats, leading the much larger 430-member House, have cited advice from the Capitol physician to wait until the nation’s capital has contained its coronavirus outbreak.
House Democrats initially planned to vote on the rules changes last month, but decided to hold off to see if discussions with Republicans would bear fruit.
Republicans had proposed ways for lawmakers to reconvene in person with some new safety measures, such as installing plexiglass at security checkpoints and committee daises.
But Democrats argued that those measures were insufficient and opted to plow ahead this week despite the lack of a bipartisan agreement. Democrats did note that they would be incorporating some suggestions from Republicans, such as only allowing committees to use specific platforms and conducting hybrid hearings like in the Senate.
At the start of the pandemic, Democratic House leaders turned to passing bipartisan coronavirus relief legislation by unanimous consent or voice vote so that not all members would have to travel to Washington. But that became a tricky prospect after conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) threatened to demand a roll call vote in March, which led to a scramble among both parties to ensure they had enough lawmakers physically present to establish a quorum and override him.
At the time, Democrats and Republicans — and even Trump — were united in frustration that Massie single-handedly forced hundreds of House members to travel to Washington and risk exposing themselves and others to the virus.
Massie had argued that “if they're telling people to drive a truck, if they're telling people to bag groceries and grow their food, then by golly, they can be in there and they can vote.”
Weeks later, GOP leaders adopted similar rhetoric for why the House members should show up in person during the pandemic.
“I know you'll honor the delivery driver, you'll honor the cashier, you'll honor those who are behind the checkstands at Home Depot or in the grocery because you think what they're doing is essential,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said during Friday’s floor debate opposing the rules changes. “If you believe you should be paid while you stay home, I think we have a difference of opinion.”
“A vote for this resolution is a vote to abandon this House!” McCarthy declared.
Under the resolution, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would have the authority to implement remote proceedings for 45 days at a time after receiving notification from the sergeant-at-arms and Capitol physician that there is a public health emergency due to the coronavirus.
Massie — who primarily wants lawmakers to be on the record about major bills rather than having leaders pass them by voice vote — said Friday that he might have been open to supporting the changes if they required a supermajority vote by the full House to authorize them for a given period, instead of a decision by select officials.
“I can drive [to the Capitol]. That option is not open to everybody. So that's why I've taken the position that you should allow remote voting or proxy voting for the people that can't get here. But we shouldn't do it in a way that makes the Speaker and the bureaucracy more powerful,” Massie said.
The House had already adopted some new safety measures for floor votes for legislation on small business loan program funding last month, as well as Friday’s votes on the rule changes and Democrats’ $3 trillion coronavirus relief proposal. Officials staggered the number of lawmakers in the chamber at a time by alphabetical order and encouraged everyone to wear facial coverings.
Under the new proxy voting system, lawmakers will have to send a letter to the House clerk designating a proxy and providing exact instructions for each floor vote. A list of designated proxies would be publicly posted on the House clerk’s website.
But a single lawmaker would be limited to serving as a designated proxy for up to 10 colleagues. That means dozens of lawmakers would still have to show up in person, while any who want to cast their own votes can still do so.
House Democrats’ move to allow lawmakers to cast votes while away from the Capitol follows steps by other legislatures around the country and the world in recent weeks to adjust their traditional practices of gathering in large groups that suddenly became public health risks.
The United Kingdom’s Parliament last month began conducting debates with a limited number of lawmakers present in the chamber with others participating by videoconference, while the European Parliament has been allowing its members to cast votes by email. State legislatures in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have similarly passed coronavirus relief legislation by video and conference calls.