House Democrats on Friday approved a historic rules changes to allow lawmakers to cast votes and conduct committee meetings remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, a move that Republicans warn could alter the nature of Congress for the first time in its 200-year history.
The vote to adopt the resolution was voted along party lines, 217-189. Three Democrats — Reps. Rick Larsen (Washington), Elaine Luria (Virginia), Tom O’Halleran (Arizona), and Independent Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan joined the Republicans to vote no.
Under the new rules, which take effect immediately, lawmakers who cannot or do want to travel to the Capitol to participate in floor votes amid of concerns about traveling in one of the nation’s hotspots, will now be able to cast votes in the House through a proxy. Absent lawmakers can authorize colleagues on their behalf with specific instructions for how they would vote on a measure, and the proxy must vote in accordance with their instructions. Those lawmakers will have to send a letter to the House clerk designating a proxy and the list of designated proxies would be publicly posted on the House clerk’s website.
Committees also will be able to operate remotely, with committee members able to participate in public hearings on a remote basis and to cast votes. Remote meetings won’t be permitted for closed hearings.
It also authorizes the House Administration Committee to study the feasibility of remote voting using technology.
Republicans urged against the change, stating the practice will allow party bosses to gain more control.
“This legislation that passed tonight to institute a remote, proxy voting system in the House eviscerates accountability and transparency for Members of Congress,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) said. “It gives Speaker Pelosi more control over committee hearings and what comes to the virtual ‘floor.’”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) cited how most of the 430 House members were able to return in person on Friday to conduct its work and vote.
“Aren’t we proving today that we don’t need a virtual Congress?” House McCarthy said. “The work of our frontline heroes is the definition of essential. It cannot be done remotely or by proxy. Why should Congress be any different? We are supposed to represent the people. We can continue to work in a safe and effective manner. Remote voting should be the final and last option.”
Some Republicans also said that such changes were unconstitutional, and could trigger a legal challenge. They have proposed ways for lawmakers to reconvene in person with some new safety measures, such as installing plexiglass at security checkpoints and committee daises.
Democrats, on the other hand have cited advice from the Capitol physician to wait until the nation’s capital has contained its coronavirus outbreak.
“Convening Congress must not turn into a super-spreader event,” House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA) said. “Technology has changed considerably over the last 231 years. There are now tools available that make temporary committee proceedings and remote voting on the House floor possible. What would be radical is if this House did nothing, if we made members decide between spreading a deadly virus or legislating for the American people.”
The resolution is set to expire after 45 days, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have the authority to renewed and modified provisions if the pandemic continues or if there is a resurgence.
The House is currently taking a vote on a massive Democrats’ $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The legislation is expected to pass in the House, but unlikely to gain any traction in the Republican-controlled Senate.