Under the proposal, which McGovern detailed in a Thursday afternoon conference call with fellow House Democrats, a member could authorize any colleague to cast their vote on the floor after giving them specific direction on how to vote.
McGovern said on the call and in a written statement that proxy voting offers the quickest and most secure way to get the House — currently 429 members — back in business amid the coronavirus crisis. The proxy voting authority he is proposing would only apply during the current pandemic, not indefinitely.
“We don’t know how long this pandemic will threaten public health, or how long state stay at home orders will last,” he said in a statement. “We all know, though, that Congress needs to be working, whether in person, remotely, or both. 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.”
The procedure would not eliminate the need for at least a few lawmakers to gather on the House floor, but it would keep hundreds of members from traveling to Washington and assembling in the Capitol, risking further transmission of the virus.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters earlier Thursday that she was open to exploring remote voting options but that it was “not as easy as you may think.” Earlier this month, she tasked McGovern and House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) with reviewing the issue of remote work.
“Until we have an appropriate way to do it, we can’t do it,” Pelosi said.
Creating the proxy voting option will require a change to House rules, which would in turn require members to return to Washington and vote under the current rules unless all sitting members agree to adopt the change by unanimous consent.
That appears unlikely. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Rules Committee, said Thursday that any rule changes should be debated while lawmakers are fully assembled in Washington. He said the proxy voting proposal generated a robust debate Thursday morning in a bipartisan conference call of Rules Committee members — one that did not fall neatly along party or generational lines.
Cole said he and other traditionalist members were wary of eroding the House’s long-standing customs in a manner that could ultimately damage the institution. But he said McGovern assembled the proposal in good faith to address the current crisis and he would give it due consideration.
“Count me skeptical but not yet opposed,” he said. “I think it’s really a profound discussion about the nature of the institution and how it should work. It’s clearly within our prerogative to do — the Constitution gives us the ability to set our own rules — but there are legitimate constitutional and procedural questions here.”
Congressional leaders have moved delicately in addressing the possibility of remote operations.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) dismissed the proxy voting option in late March — “I think each individual should represent their district,” he told reporters — but he has signaled he would continue to review voting options as the pandemic drags on.
There is no indication the 100-member Senate is headed down a similar path. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, said Thursday that congressional leaders did not have “any interest in a legislative body that doesn’t convene.”
“It’s in the past been decided — and my guess is, we will continue to decide — that legislative bodies have to meet in order to function,” Blunt said, adding that, in emergencies, “you should be able to agree by unanimous consent” on matters of national importance.
Proxy voting is seen by many senior Democrats as a compromise between traditionalists wary of making any changes to House rules and the growing corps of lawmakers who have proposed more far-reaching remote voting systems.
A D.C. technology firm, Markup.Law, built an emergency remote voting system on spec using existing commercial software platforms and has demonstrated it in recent weeks for key House and Senate offices. Joel Rothstein, the firm’s chief executive, said in an interview Monday that the company stands ready to submit the system for technical and security validations.
But McGovern suggested any high-tech solution would take too much time to implement and has pitched proxy voting as a simpler way of allowing the vast majority of members to exercise their legislative powers without putting their health in peril.
Under the McGovern proposal, members would transmit a letter to the House clerk authorizing a colleague to cast votes for them and providing “exact instruction” on how to vote. Members granted proxy authority would not have blanket power to cast votes for another member.
Votes cast by proxy would be counted alongside votes cast in the House chamber, and they would count toward the constitutionally mandated quorum of one-half of sworn and seated members.
Such a system would avoid a repeat of the scramble that took place on March 27, when scores of lawmakers rushed to catch flights or drive overnight to the Capitol to pass a $2.2 trillion relief bill after one member threatened to raise procedural objections.
The proposal does not address official committee work, which has ground to a halt since House members left Washington last month. No public hearings or business meetings are allowed under House rules unless at least two members are present.
McGovern said overcoming those limitations would be more difficult: “Making changes to the standing rules of the House and putting in place technology to allow for virtual hearings and markups is complicated and can’t be done overnight,” he said, adding that committees can hold unofficial virtual briefings or roundtables in lieu of formal hearings.