WASHINGTON – It all started with the grandchildren.
As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saw it, if he could Face Time with the grandkids, why not have Congress legislate by video chat and avoid the health risks of convening at the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic?
And so the silver-haired, 80-year-old congressman from Maryland helped steer the House into one of the more substantial rules changes of its 230 year history.
“This is no revolutionary, radical change,” Hoyer told The Associated Press in an interview. "This is exactly what the Founders wanted to happen.”
The House approved the new rules Friday, during what could likely be the chamber's last fully in-person votes for the foreseeable future.
From now on, lawmakers will be allowed to cast House floor votes by proxy — without being “present” as the Constitution requires. The next step will allow them to skip the middle-man and simply vote remotely once leaders approve the technology.
The shift will dramatically change the look, if not the operation, of the legislative branch — launching a 21st century WFH House, like others, “working from home.”
Debate over the changes has been fierce.
As President Donald Trump encourages Americans back to work, Democrats pushed the changes past the objections of Republicans.
“It’s a very sad day inside this House,” said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Neither Civil War nor Great Depression or any other national crisis had spurred the House to allow its members to vote from home, a sign of how deeply the virus outbreak act is disrupting the institutional norms of American life.
McCarthy, a top Trump ally, argued during debate, “The founders would be ashamed."
But like the rest of the country, lawmakers are weighing risks and responsibilities. Since the virus outbreak shuttered Capitol Hill in March, the 435-member House has largely stayed away while the smaller Senate resumed operations. Several lawmakers and dozens of staff in the sprawling complex have tested positive as the virus hits close.
Democrats argue the House can rely on technology for remote work as the pandemic drags on. But Republicans objected to what they see as a power grab during the crisis.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the rules panel, warned the changes will fundamentally alter the nature of the institution, “and not for the better.”
Under the new rules, House lawmakers will no longer be required to travel to Washington to participate in floor votes. Some will. But others can assign their vote to another lawmaker who will be at the Capitol to cast it for them. A single lawmaker can carry 10 proxy votes to the chamber.
Just as important, the House committees — the bread and butter of legislative work — will be able to fully function remotely. Committee hearings are prime-time for lawmakers — the chance to grill officials, spar with colleagues and have much of it captured on C-SPAN. House lawmakers will be able to draft bills, conduct oversight and even issue subpoenas from the comfort of their homes.
With the Capitol physician warning it could be years before Congress resumes full operations, lawmakers are anxious to show constituents they are working — but safely.
“Convening Congress must not turn into a super-spreader event,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the chairman of the Rules Committee.
The changes are expected to be temporary, only through the remainder of this session of Congress, at the end of the year. Democrats insist the changes should be used only under times of crisis.
But Republicans warn there will be legal challenges to legislation passed during this period, questioning the constitutional legitimacy of proxy votes.
“You've got to be here,” said another Trump ally, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “You can’t phone it in.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shelved the proposal two weeks ago insisting she wanted any change of this significance to be bipartisan. McCarthy had proposed a “hybrid” plan that would allow the committees to conduct work remotely but stopped short of allowing the proxy floor voting. A bipartisan task force failed to reach a compromise.
The House has never allowed proxy floor votes, even during some of the most challenging eras in the nation's history. Lawmakers convened during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and only stayed away a short time after the 2001 terror attacks. Proxy votes had been allowed in committees, but that ended decades ago.
For Hoyer, who has spent half is lifetime in Congress — marking his 40th year in the House next week — it’s a reminder that technological savvy cuts across generational and institutional lines.
He acknowledges being new to technology but quickly grew “enamored” by feeling of proximity video provided. “It’s a real experience," he said.
As lawmakers pushed for options during the crisis, the leader came on board. He’s not a fan of proxy voting — he would have preferred a video vote — but sees it as a temporary step until they are able to create the remote vote option.
Known as an institutionalist who often welcomes freshmen lawmakers with Capitol tours, Hoyer believes the changes are in keeping with tradition.
“It is unacceptable to have the Congress sidelined at any point in time,” he said.
“It is the use of technology to do the same thing the Congress has been doing since its inception," he said — conducting oversight and debating and passing legislation "and sending it to the desk of the president.”