A year after the pandemic upended life in Congress and across the country, House Democrats are leaving the door open to keeping proxy voting in some form as part of the “new normal” on Capitol Hill.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this week it’s a question lawmakers will likely discuss as a potential option under limited circumstances, especially given how many Republicans are now embracing the practice as a matter of convenience.
“I think there will be discussion about should we be able to vote remotely in other circumstances post-COVID-19,” Hoyer said. “There is really, you know, no magic in being in a particular room when you vote.”
Rep. Dan Kildee (Mich.), who serves as House Democrats’ chief deputy whip, expressed support for allowing proxy voting in limited circumstances, such as the inability to travel due to a long-term illness. Kildee served as a proxy for Rep. John Lewis last year before the Georgia Democrat’s death from pancreatic cancer.
“I think that’s something worthy of consideration. I think the threshold would have to be pretty high, but I would be open to it,” Kildee said.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) added: “It’s a reasonable discussion for us to have.”
The proxy voting system used in the House is currently in effect through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Democrats began implementing the practice in May, and it was renewed in January.
The willingness to consider proxy voting on a permanent basis — even if it’s just for limited circumstances — is a sea change from a year ago when lawmakers in both parties were initially skeptical of the concept to adapt to the pandemic.
Republicans at the time were adamantly opposed to the idea and even filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. The suit was initially dismissed but Republicans filed an appeal.
Since then, however, the practice has become more bipartisan and routine. Many Republicans got on board when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) signaled after the Jan. 6 insurrection that they could use proxy voting out of security concerns surrounding travel.
House Republicans have continued to use proxy voting, including about a dozen who cast votes remotely while attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla., last month.
But there are still some GOP holdouts.
At a Republican conference meeting last week, lawmakers were divided over the practice; some suggested they should embrace it, others called for sticking with their initial opposition.
Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, argued there has been “bipartisan abuse” of proxy voting.
“I do think that we need to get rid of proxy voting,” Davis said, questioning the need for it when the Senate hasn’t implemented a similar system.
While walking toward the Rotunda that divides the House and Senate wings of the Capitol, Davis joked, “We’re almost at the imaginary force field where COVID changes and the reaction to it changes when we go to the Senate side.”
McCarthy this week called on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to outline a plan for reopening the House with a return to more in-person hearings, ending proxy voting and mask rules, and resuming Capitol tours that have been suspended since the pandemic began.
He cited a statistic from the Capitol attending physician’s office that said about 75 percent of House members are now fully vaccinated or will be in a matter of days.
“Simply put: it’s time that we return to regular order,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to Pelosi.
Hoyer said this week that he anticipates most House business will eventually return to its traditional in-person format to facilitate the relationship-building that’s critical to lawmaking.
“I think the majority believes that being in person is a positive way of doing business with one another in the legislative process, whether it’s in committee or on the floor or just on the Hill seeing one another,” he told reporters.
In addition to proxy voting, committee business has also been altered by the pandemic. House Democratic leaders now schedule “committee work weeks” dedicated to hearings and markups that can be held virtually when lawmakers aren’t required to be in Washington for floor votes.
Some lawmakers say they appreciate the ability to conduct committee work remotely — Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) called the work weeks “very efficient” for handling oversight functions — while others are sick of Zoom calls and internet connectivity problems.
Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, said reducing rank-and-file members’ time in Washington means they have fewer opportunities to influence legislation that’s primarily driven by leadership.
“A lot of business gets transacted on the floor, just interacting with other members. So missing that, I think, really weakens members, and honestly strengthens leadership. This place has become more top-heavy because of the way in which we vote and the amount of time it takes,” Cole said.
Floor votes are now held open for 45 minutes, instead of the typical 15-minute cap, so that lawmakers can vote in small groups instead of crowding together like they did before the pandemic.
For critics of proxy voting, though, there’s an acknowledgement of the uphill battle to reverse a practice that’s become commonplace.
“I certainly said at the beginning, this is never going to go away once it’s implemented,” Davis said.