WASHINGTON – When the House reorganized its rules at the start of the pandemic to allow lawmakers to vote remotely, Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina was among 161 Republicans who filed a lawsuit to block the arrangement, arguing that he “subverts” the Constitution.
But those objections were only a distant memory in late June, when Mr. Norman and several other Republicans left town for a week of legislative work to assemble on the southwest border with Donald J. Trump. While happy with the former president, lawmakers certified on official letterhead that they were “unable to physically attend debates in the House chamber” due to the coronavirus and designated colleagues in Washington to vote by proxy for them.
The arrangement could have attracted more attention if it had not become so prevalent since the House passed rules last spring to allow members, for the first time, to vote without being physically present in the chamber. . Once billed as a temporary crisis measure to keep Congress running and protect lawmakers as a deadly pandemic ravaged the country, the proxy voting system has become a tool of personal and political convenience for many members of the House. .
Fourteen months after its approval, with the threat to public health receding and immunizations for most members of Congress, a growing number of lawmakers are using the practice to attend political events, double the work back home. or simply avoid a long drive to Washington.
No one may have benefited from the arrangement more than President Nancy Pelosi, who recently informed lawmakers that proxy voting will be in effect for the remainder of the summer. This enabled Ms Pelosi, whose majority is so slim that she cannot afford to lose more than four Democrats if every member is present and voting, to ensure that absences alone do not cost her a essential support.
Grassroots lawmakers have also taken full advantage. The day before the border trip, Representative Ron Kind, a politically endangered Democrat from Wisconsin, used proxy voting to be able to accompany President Biden on a visit to his home state.
In February, a dozen Republicans, including Florida’s Matt Gaetz and California’s Devin Nunes, were criticized for doing the same to attend the annual conservative political action conference in Florida – after many of them denounced Democrats for their use of proxy voting. Around the same time, several Democrats used proxies to vote to attend protests in Minneapolis surrounding the Derek Chauvin murder trial.
And the data suggests lawmakers regularly use the system to extend their weekends at home. According to outside experts who have compiled and analyzed data on proxy voting in the House, its use is often limited on days when lawmakers must enter and leave the city. The House returns on Monday after a two week recess; on its last day of session before the start of the vacation, 39 members used proxies instead of showing up in person to vote.
“People who use it lie,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, criticizing leaders of both parties for not doing much to police abuse. Congress itself, he said, is paying the price.
“It indulges in the worst impulses of the modern congressman,” added Mr Gallagher, “which is spending all their time flying around the country, raising money and avoiding all the nuts and bolts of the job. legislative”.
Many lawmakers, including some who face serious health risks, use the rules the way they are intended, to protect themselves from exposure to the coronavirus or to facilitate work that would otherwise be difficult or impossible taking into account the additional burdens associated with travel and family care during a pandemic.
Democratic leaders say a full return to normal operations just isn’t possible yet as the country remains in a state of emergency and many Americans go unvaccinated, and their aides stress there remains a risk major infections.
But with the current rules due to be reauthorized in August, Senior Democrats are among those pushing for a more comprehensive debate – both on when to end the emergency powers in place and whether a hidden institution like the House representatives should take inspiration from other US institutions and use the pandemic as an impetus for more lasting change.
“We did it because we had no choice,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the rules committee. âThe question now is, do we get rid of all of this or do we keep some of it? I don’t know what the answer to that will be in the end, but I think it’s a point where we have this conversation.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and Majority Leader, has become the most influential supporter of adopting a more responsive electronic system that would allow lawmakers indisposed by pregnancy, serious illness or even disaster. in their districts to vote remotely after the pandemic ends.
Although they insist that is not their motivation, leaders like Mr Hoyer and Ms Pelosi have benefited from emergency authority, which ensured that all 220 Democrats can vote wherever they are. find – a powerful tool as they try to compete for one of the tightest majorities in decades. Ms Pelosi, who was reluctant to switch to remote work in the first place, did not say whether she would support the practice’s sustainability in one form or another.
Nearly three in four Democrats have voted remotely at least once under current rules, according to a CNN analysis, and six Democrats have not voted in person since January, some of whom pose serious health risks. Republican use was less widespread, but dozens of party members also voted by proxy.
Representative Katie Porter, Democrat from California, said she hoped the shared experience might help prompt a broader re-examination of what to do in-person and what didn’t. Ms Porter, who represents part of Orange County, said she saved nearly 20 hours of travel time in some weeks when she chose to work in her district instead.
“We have to debate on the ground, we have to see each other,” said Ms Porter. âBut the post offices? Tell me how I explain to my constituents the taxpayer benefit of flying to Washington and being away from my community to vote at a post office.
But Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, and other prominent Republicans have taken a hard line against the practice. They argue that the ease of working remotely is slowly changing the character of an institution founded for more than two centuries on physical connection. They have pledged to end proxy voting immediately if they regain a majority in 2022.
“Congress is like a small town – you miss the whole relationship,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the rules panel, calling the changes so far “the first step down a hill. very slippery “.
Members who do not show up in person, he argued, are likely to miss the behind-the-scenes conversations, face-to-face debates and tug-of-war that Congress operates.
“As a whip it’s much more difficult to whip someone, to persuade them if they are in another place, remote and not part of the give-and-take,” said Mr. Cole, one designated counters of his party, which itself voted by proxy.
So far, Republican leaders have largely given their own members, like Mr. Norman, a pass to use proxy voting, conceding that as long as it is within the rules of the House, they will look the other way. A spokesperson for Mr Norman declined to comment.
But Mr. McCarthy’s position is likely to make it more difficult to achieve the kind of bipartisan consensus that would almost certainly be necessary for changes to be truly lasting. Republicans’ lawsuit to overturn proxy voting as unconstitutional continues slowly in court
Pressed by opposition concerns, Mr McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee, insisted that the dysfunction in the House had less to do with remote legislation than with ideas Republicans have. married women, including their efforts to minimize or justify the Capitol Riot. .
“What worries me right now is that we have people who continue to deny or downplay what happened on January 6, or to spin the carts around the crazy lies around the election,” Mr. McGovern said. “It destroys Congress – not the ability of a small group of people to vote remotely or by proxy.”