The proposal would also empower committees to formally hold hearings through technology, both as a hybrid in which some members are present in hearing rooms and others are appearing via video, and some that will be done entirely by remote video conferencing.
“That one big step is to make sure Congress can act,” Hoyer said Wednesday morning in an interview with The Washington Post, before formally introducing the resolution in a brief House session.
He noted that the Senate was already using hybrid hearings, pointing to Tuesday’s high-profile appearance of federal health experts all appearing by video. He also highlighted this month’s oral arguments of the Supreme Court that for the first time were conducted entirely by conference calls as the audio was aired live on C-SPAN.
“This is not a radical departure,” Hoyer said.
The House is expected to approve the measure during Friday’s session, in which Democrats also hope to pass a $3 trillion rescue package for the health and economic crises resulting from the pandemic. Republicans have been largely opposed to the concept of proxy voting, so the vote will probably be on party lines, but Hoyer said that he incorporated several ideas from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during negotiations over the last few weeks.
Still, two hours after Hoyer unveiled the proposal, McCarthy issued a scathing statement calling it a power grab by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) by allowing members of Congress to stay away from the Capitol and cast their proxy votes through others.
“The Democrats’ proposal calls for the House of Representatives to abandon ship — potentially for the remainder of the session,” McCarthy said. “As we have said from the start, any change to centuries-old rules of the House should only be done in a bipartisan way that achieves consensus. This proposal fails that critical test and would forever alter our democratic institution for the worse.”
The proposal will be in effect whenever congressional health and security officials deem that there is a public health emergency related to the virus. Shortly after Hoyer introduced the measure, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) extended the city’s stay-at-home order, ban on mass gatherings and closure of nonessential businesses through June 8, saying infections have not declined enough to start reopening the capital.
Under the proposed change, lawmakers not attending will have to provide a written declaration of both how they intend to vote and which of their colleagues will cast their proxy vote — and no member of the House can carry more than 10 proxy votes for other lawmakers.
In a follow-up letter to fellow Democrats, Hoyer told them that the legislature had to adapt in such critical times to act safely and not put anyone at risk through constant travel to and from Washington, while also continuing to meet and help oversee the federal government’s response to these crises.
“A failure to meet this moment and adapt with the use of new tools will lead to a sidelined legislative branch and an upset in the careful balance our framers enshrined in the Constitution. The House must rise to this challenge — and we will,” Hoyer wrote.
Since approving a modest coronavirus bill March 13, the House has been sputtering, at best. Long-standing rules forbid voting from afar and require that at least some members be on hand for a committee to hold a formal hearing.
The House has held just two legislative sessions since mid-March, each an open-and-shut exercise to approve more than $2.5 trillion to help hospitals and support the cratering economy. Rank-and-file lawmakers had little input into those measures, and committees have been able only to hold conference calls with administration officials in recent weeks to discuss ongoing responses to the virus.
In the interview, Hoyer said that committees could immediately begin holding hearings and calling administration officials.
Once the resolution is approved, committees will have the power to conduct legislative markups to vote on legislation and amendments to proposed bills — but those will have to wait until congressional security officials sign off on the technology used for votes.
“What a committee can do in person, this authorizes them to do remotely,” he said.
Hoyer also noted that the resolution directs congressional officials to study technology in a way that might lead to lawmakers voting electronically from afar.
But no congressional leader wants this to become the long-term reality, he said. “There really is no substitute for personal activity.”