Democratic leaders pushed forward with the changes this week after failing to come to terms in two weeks of negotiations with Republicans, who firmly opposed several key measures in the proposal.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and top Democrats said the changes were temporary and tailored to the current crisis — which has made mass gatherings of lawmakers hazardous — but necessary to ensure that the House fulfills its constitutional obligations.
The House has sputtered for the past two months as other organs of the federal government — most notably the Supreme Court — and schools, localities and the private sector have embraced video technology to conduct business. The smaller, 100-member Senate returned May 4 and has relied on remote committee work for hearings, though senators still must be present for roll-call votes.
Defending the changes during the floor debate Friday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the moves were purely temporary and would “not fundamentally alter the nature of the House or how it operates.”
“There is no dangerous precedent, only a common-sense solution to an unprecedented crisis that demands our ingenuity and adaptability as an institution,” Hoyer said.
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) addressed the balancing act of responsibility and health risks as members returned to the Capitol on Friday to vote on the rules changes and a $3 trillion emergency relief package. Washington remains under a stay-at-home order through June 8.
“Any of us could have the virus and not even know it. We could be asymptomatic but carriers nonetheless,” McGovern said. “Convening Congress must not, must not turn into a super-spreader event. . . . 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. That’s a false choice. We can and we should do both.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) pointed to a public health reality: The Washington region was a virus hot spot, and several lawmakers are under treatment for chronic medical conditions.
“The best place you can find to get the coronavirus is indoors in an enclosed room with a lot of people and a lot of talk,” he said. “That’s the definition of Congress.”
Republicans argue that the current 430-member House could instead make more-modest adaptations to its operations. They have raised several objections, including that lawmakers should report to their workplaces like other essential workers, that the rules changes erode the rights of the minority and that they represent a major break with the customs of the House.
“We are changing the power of Congress itself,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Friday. “The Founders would be ashamed of today,” he added. “This is not what they envisioned, this is not what they believed in, and this is not the action the American public believe.”
Several Republicans said Congress did not change its rules and continued to meet even as the Civil War raged fewer than 100 miles from the Capitol. Others recalled the onerous conditions the nation’s founders faced in traveling to Washington.
“Our founders used to ride days on horseback, on wagons, through unkind conditions to get to D.C.,” said Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.). “Us, we only have to brave TSA lines and occasionally a delayed flight. You know, the Constitution here did not catch the virus. Why are we voting on a measure here to basically suspend it?”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said the House could take “appropriate precautions and go back to work. That’s what the executive branch is doing. That’s what the United States Senate is doing. That’s what millions of Americans do each and every day. We should be no different. The House should do the same.”
Some of the rule changes, however, largely match procedures already in use in the Republican-controlled Senate — such as the use of videoconferencing technology at committee hearings.
The House Democrats’ proposal would go further, allowing fully virtual hearings as well as committee business meetings in which legislation can be considered, amended and advanced to the floor.
The proxy voting proposal allows any member attending a House vote to cast as many as 10 votes on behalf of colleagues who have authorized those votes by letter to the House clerk.
It remains unclear just how widely the proxy voting option will be used. Between 25 and 35 members have been absent for the House votes held amid the pandemic. But a half-dozen House Democrats polled Friday said they would continue to vote in person as long as they were able.
“This is for emergencies,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.). “It’s not like, ‘I’m having a bad day and I don’t want to go to Washington.’ ”
But Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) said she planned to be selective about which votes she physically attends going forward, lest she expose herself and others to needless risk in her trip to and from El Paso.
“It just depends situation to situation. I am cognizant of the fact that this is a hot spot,” she said. “I have to think about those things. It’s more complex than saying, ‘Oh, I’ll be here every vote.’ . . . Really, it’s putting other people at risk.”
Democrats said they incorporated several Republican suggestions, including limiting the number of proxy votes any one member could cast, restricting virtual hearings to approved software platforms and requiring sufficient notice of any remote proceedings.
All of the provisions are temporary under the resolution, applying only to “a public health emergency due to a novel coronavirus,” as declared by the House speaker.
The House session Friday is the third time that a large number of lawmakers have been called back to Washington since mid-February.
Significant social distancing measures have been undertaken on Capitol Hill, including limiting the number of lawmakers gathering on the floor by establishing a platoon system for voting and otherwise encouraging those members who are not speaking to remain in their offices.
The Rules Committee has met in the vast hearing room of the Ways and Means Committee rather than in its tiny space tucked above the House chamber, and a Thursday hearing of the House Energy Committee took place with members sitting apart.
Those adaptations, Republicans have argued, are sufficient.
“If the whole House can conduct business while adhering to health guidelines, then so too can our committees,” the top Republicans on House committees wrote in a letter Thursday, calling the Democratic proposal a “partisan assault on the rights of the House Minority and our ability to effectively represent the American people.”
The changes appear to be the most significant to the chamber’s operations in at least 25 years, perhaps longer.
In the years after the Watergate scandal, a bumper crop of Democratic freshmen pushed through changes that diluted the power of powerful committee chairmen and increased the transparency of the lawmaking process — culminating in 1979 with fully televised proceedings.
After Republicans took over the House in 1995, they instituted changes meant to address what they saw as Democratic abuses of power — including the use of proxy voting in committees.
And after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the House formulated procedures to ensure it could function in case of a mass-casualty event affecting Congress. But House leaders believed those procedures were ill suited to the circumstances of a pandemic and opted against invoking them, aides said.