Pushed by rank-and-file Democrats to adapt, as the rest of America has done, Hoyer led a group that came up with new rules allowing lawmakers to vote from home to avoid risky travel and implementing technological changes that created virtual hearings in which members and witnesses could appear through video conferencing.
Six months later, the House has regained its footing. Ten of the 12 annual spending bills for federal agencies got approved, as did the Pentagon’s annual policy outline, along with some Democratic bills that served as markers on how they would overhaul police rules and guarantee safe delivery of mail ballots in the upcoming election.
The House looks entirely different — up to 20 percent of members vote by proxy, through a lawmaker who is present, and some hearings are entirely virtual — yet it is functioning. Plenty of little gritty work that the public rarely sees is getting done.
Yes, House Democrats are still clashing with the Senate in a higher-profile fashion, often ending in a gridlock that frustrates the public, and, yes, the Trump administration is still thumbing its nose at most of their oversight efforts.
Yet, for however long the pandemic makes a normal Congress high risk, Hoyer believes this new normal is certainly better than the alternative.
“The Congress could have been immobilized. I mean, a lot of state legislatures, they adjourned,” Hoyer said. “The Congress can’t do that.”
Republicans have fought these changes, first arguing that in drafting the Constitution the Founding Fathers wanted Congress to be physically present to cast votes. They filed a lawsuit in federal courts contesting these rules changes, a losing battle — a federal judge dismissed the suit in August — given that even the Supreme Court adapted to the pandemic with remote hearings and voting.
“That’s so stupid,” Hoyer said, dismissing the concept that a lawmaker violates his oath if he is not physically present. “My constituents don’t care how I vote or where I am when I vote. They care that I represent their viewpoint and I articulate it.”
Hoyer, the longest-serving House Democrat, is an unlikely evangelist for a high-tech Congress. There’s a running joke about how often Hoyer has to be reminded to turn off his mute button on the now-ubiquitous conference calls that have replaced in-person meetings for the caucus. He barely touches email, but he’s adapted to FaceTime and text messages to stay in touch with grandchildren.
“Look, I’m a hugger, I’m a shaker of hands, I’m a slapper on the back. I like to be together with people,” he said, admitting he has gotten “a little buggy being at home all the time.”
He estimates that he used Zoom or Microsoft Teams’ video technology five times, ever, before the coronavirus outbreak. Now? He’s on Zoom or Teams about six hours a day.
But Hoyer has adapted, out of necessity. Where Republicans see changes that are altering the fabric of the House as an institution, Hoyer views these moves as temporary steps to keep the institution functioning.
On March 13, the last normal day of Congress, the House approved the second coronavirus bill and sent lawmakers home for a brief break. Within days, a handful of lawmakers tested positive for the coronavirus, and all travel was deemed risky.
With 435 members at full capacity, the House is not fit for social distancing. The chamber practically stopped functioning. Over the next two months, the House came into session on just two days, to approve two massive relief bills worth more than $2.5 trillion, with only brief debate. No committee hearings were held to fully vet the legislation, with old rules even forbidding virtual hearings.
“I kept thinking to myself, look, we have got to do our business. The Congress cannot be AWOL,” Hoyer said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who initially fought any remote voting or hearings, faced a rebellion within her ranks demanding change and eventually appointed Hoyer to lead a task force that included Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Republicans fought any changes, so Hoyer found himself being one of the most open to any sort of change, pushing to allow lawmakers to vote by video. He dismissed concerns about security.
And he demanded committees be allowed to meet either in person or by video. In late May, House committees slowly went back to work, holding four meetings, according to Hoyer’s office. From late June through July, the House held an average of 20 committee hearings a week.
It’s not a complete success. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has made a habit of calling out Democrats who he says are abusing the proxy voting system, which is meant only for those who have health issues.
In a late July exchange with Hoyer, Scalise noted that there is a 15 percent increase in those using proxy voting late in the last legislative day of the week.
“You’re literally signing a document on your stationery to the clerk of the House saying you’re physically unable to be here, when you were physically here that day,” Scalise said.
Chagrined, Hoyer acknowledges that he has chewed out some Democrats and explained the rules state they can only take this option if they have a health safety excuse, not because they want to get a better flight option to make it to a family event back home.
“I have reiterated time and time again on our conference calls and in person to people: This is not for convenience,” he said.
Elected in 1981, Hoyer has locked down support for another term as majority leader — as Democrats are expected to hold the majority — through 2022, which will mark 20 years as the No. 2 leader behind Pelosi.
He said he wakes up “angry” every day and wants to keep serving as long as he is physically up to the task. After years of craving the speaker’s gavel, Hoyer no longer views the promotion to the top job as something necessary to complete a career that began 60 years ago as an intern.
“If you told me I was going to be the number two leader in the House of Representatives for 20 years, I would have said, ‘I would have died and gone to heaven.’ I would have said, ‘Oh, I can’t believe that.’ This job that I have is a wonderful job,” Hoyer said.
Even if he has to sit on Zoom calls for six hours a day.