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Work-from-home Congress? House OKs proxy votes

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Neither the Civil War, the Great Depression nor any other national crisis has pushed the House to allow lawmakers to vote by proxy — without being “present,” as the Constitution requires. That’s about to change during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House on Friday approved a package of historic rule changes so Congress can keep functioning even while it’s partly closed. The shift will dramatically change the look, if not the operation, of the legislative branch, launching a 21st century WFH House — like many Americans, “working from home.”

“This House must continue legislating,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee, said before the vote. “And we have to do so in a way that is safe for all those around us.”

Debate over the changes has been fierce. As President Trump encourages Americans back to work, the 435-seat House has stayed away due to health risks while the 100-member Senate has resumed operations.

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Democrats argue that the House can rely on technology for remote work as the pandemic drags on. But Republicans objected to what they see as a power grab during the crisis. The vote was 217-189.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the rules panel, contended that the changes would fundamentally alter the nature of the institution, “and not for the better.”

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One by one Republicans lined up Friday to speak against it.

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“We should all get to Washington, do our jobs,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.).

Under the new rules, House lawmakers will no longer be required to travel to Washington to participate in floor votes. They will be allowed to vote by proxy — assigning their vote to another lawmaker who will be at the Capitol to cast it for them. A provision allows for direct remote voting eventually, once the technology is approved.

Just as important, the House committees — the bread and butter of legislative work — will be able to fully function remotely. Committee hearings are prime-time for lawmakers — the chance to grill officials, spar with colleagues and have much of it captured on C-SPAN. House lawmakers will be able to draft bills, conduct oversight and even issue subpoenas from their homes.

“This is about allowing the people’s House — and the people’s representatives in committees — to work,” Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has helped lead the effort, testified before the Rules Committee.

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With the Capitol physician warning it could be years before Congress resumes full operations, lawmakers are eager to chart a new normal and not be sidelined.

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An earlier proposal was shelved two weeks ago as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she wanted any change of this significance to be bipartisan. She tapped a task force to try to reach a bipartisan compromise.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) proposed a “hybrid” plan that would allow the committees to conduct work remotely but stopped short of allowing the proxy voting on the floor.

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A key Trump ally, McCarthy argues that if other Americans are at work, Congress should be, too. “It’s a very sad day inside this House,” he said. He mocked Pelosi for having claimed the House would serve as the “captain” of the ship, last to leave during the crisis, only to go home.

The changes are expected to be temporary, only through the remainder of this session of Congress in early January. Democrats said the changes should be used only during times of crisis.

But Republicans warn there will be legal challenges to legislation passed during this period, questioning the constitutional legitimacy of proxy votes. The House has never allowed proxy floor votes, even during some of the most challenging eras in the nation’s history. Lawmakers convened during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and only stayed away a short time after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Proxy votes had been allowed in committees, but that ended decades ago. Under the new rules, one lawmaker can carry up to 10 votes by proxy to the Capitol.

“You got to be here,” said another Trump ally, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “You can’t phone it in.”

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But Hoyer, quoting President Abraham Lincoln, told his colleagues, “We must act and think anew.”

The White House is a mix of normal and surreal, with empty desks, dark rooms and even a Secret Service agent worrying aloud about coronavirus infections.


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