WASHINGTON – With Congress essentially closed, House Democrats are proposing a temporary rules change during the coronavirus crisis that would allow lawmakers to vote remotely via another lawmaker physically present at the U.S. Capitol.
The rare move, which would require a vote for passage, is being presented Thursday during a private Democratic caucus conference call as anxious lawmakers clamor to bring Congress back on line during the stay-home shutdown.
“Congress needs to be working,” wrote Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee, in a statement proposing the change.
As outlined, the proposal tries to steer clear of setting up new technological platforms that could be vulnerable to hackers, and it prevents blanket proxy voting, as some have suggested.
Instead, it would require House members to notify the House clerk of their intent to submit specific instructions to a specific lawmaker to cast the vote on their behalf, he said.
“We don’t know how long this pandemic will threaten public health, or how long state stay at home orders will last,” McGovern wrote. ”We should not wait for this pandemic to end to make changes to the rules that help us to do our jobs in such an unprecedented time."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who tasked the chairman to consider options, is backing the effort, her spokesman said.
Congress has been all but shuttered since late March, and far-flung lawmakers are sheltering at home like other Americans. The House and Senate are meeting for pro forma sessions every few days just to avoid fully adjourning, keeping the door open for passing critical legislation. Congress is not expected to return before May 4.
But rank-and-file lawmakers have been rallying for a rules change, worried that as the country reels amid the crisis, their constituents are not seeing the breadth of the congressional response.
Pelosi has criticized President Donald Trump's rush to ease stay-home rules so Americans can get back to work and restart the economy as “almost sinful.”
At her weekly press briefing earlier Thursday, Pelosi sounded reluctant to implement House more sweeping voting changes, warning, “It’s not as easy as you may think.”
“The sooner we can get rid of the pandemic, the sooner we can get to work,” Pelosi said. “In the meantime, the shelter in place, the social distancing, that is a very effective way to go forward.”
Trump threatened this week to invoke rare constitutional authority to forcibly adjourn Congress so he could bypass the legislative confirmation process and appoint his nominees to key positions.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated that seems unlikely.
Allowing the new procedure would be highly unusual but reflective of the times, as proxy voting has not been allowed on the House floor essentially since the early Congress during the nation's founding.
During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the House continued to conduct business during limited pro forma sessions much like today, with the visitor galleries shuttered, according to the House website.
Then, like now, lawmakers ran into objections as they tried to pass key legislation with no quorum amid member absences. But at times they reached agreements to proceed.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress briefly shuttered before reopening.
Under the proposal, the rules change in the House would be temporary and last only through the length of the pandemic.
Remote votes through a proxy would count toward the tally, and toward achieving a quorum, under McGovern's plan.