WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of the House could be allowed to designate a colleague to vote for them in the event they are unable to return to Washington amid the coronavirus outbreak under a proposal from the chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., sent a staff report to colleagues late Monday that said voting by proxy could be made available for any members who are unable to return to Washington and cast an in-person vote due to the pandemic. This could include members who are under self-quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus or had contact with someone who tested positive, those who are caring for someone who is ill or those who have reservations about traveling.
“This is a moment of national emergency,” McGovern wrote in a letter accompanying the report. “It is imperative that we act swiftly in the weeks and months ahead in a way that preserves the integrity of the institution so that we can continue to respond not just to this crisis, but future emergencies as well.”
The proposal came as members of the House were away from Washington, awaiting an agreement in the Senate on a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package that could come up for a vote this week.
Rules Committee staff began exploring options for voting after two House members tested positive for the virus . Among the ideas floated for consideration was remote voting, but committee staff determined there were too many security concerns in addition to logistical and technical challenges in the middle of the public health crisis.
The report, commissioned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week, said there were “several other routes” to have the House vote, some of them without lawmakers returning to Washington.
The simplest route is the most obvious: passing the legislation by voice vote or unanimous consent, neither of which requires the full House to be present. The report said this is “by far the best option is to use the existing House rules and current practices.” However, it could be derailed if even one member appears to object.
If there are objections and the rules have to be changed, the report said proxy voting “is likely the best of the options available under the circumstances.”
Proxy voting would require a rules change but could be quickly adopted if there were universal support for the idea, according to the report. If not, an in-person vote would be required to make the change and would mean members would have to travel back to Washington.
Asked if House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., supported the proposal, a spokesman said it was not “a preferable option.”
The report said options for remote voting, such as video conferencing, were untested and could potentially be vulnerable to hostile foreign governments seeking to interfere in U.S. democracy. In addition, there was not enough time or consensus to make such a change.
“A rule change of this magnitude would also be one of the biggest rule changes in the last century, in one of the most critical institutions in our country,” the report said.
Committee staff suggested remote voting was something that could be explored for future emergencies.
Beyond proxy voting, the House could temporarily increase the number of people it would take to object to a unanimous consent request, decreasing the possibility that one person could derail the whole process. But the report notes that “members who frequently disagree with the majority of the House might object to this change.”
The staff report noted that even recorded, in-person votes could result in votes that do not reflect the current breakdown of majority and minority parties if there are large numbers of members absent because they are unable to travel or under quarantine.
“In other words, the minority party could have a majority of the votes, which would not reflect the outcome of the latest election,” the report said.
Voting by proxy had previously been used at the committee level but never on the House floor, according to staff. Under the rules change, a member would have to complete a form and submit it to the House. This would be allowed only during the coronavirus pandemic and would not apply to normal operating rules in the House.
The report noted that voting by proxy, like remote voting, could raise constitutional questions and be challenged in court, “namely, whether a member must be physically present in the chamber to vote.” But it said that “many scholars argue” that the House has the right to determine its own rules.
Proxy voting, in which a lawmaker could cast a vote on behalf of an absent colleague, has been barred in the House since the very first Congress in 1789, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
In a parallel to today’s coronavirus pandemic, so many House members were sick with the Spanish flu or away selling Liberty War Bonds or campaigning for reelection in the fall of 1918 that the chamber was unable to have the required majority of its 435 members present to conduct business, according to the House website.
That October, the House tried approving a bill creating a reserve corps for the Public Health Service so it could send military personnel to flu hot spots in the U.S. where there were not enough doctors. An initial attempt to approve the legislation was derailed when the chamber counted 251 members missing.
The House approved the measure the next day after the fewer than 50 lawmakers in attendance agreed not to object that their scant numbers violated the chamber’s rules.
An official from the Senate Historical Office said it could find no instances of a senator being allowed to vote who was not physically present.