The Democratic-held House on Friday authorized proxy voting for the first time in its history, due to the coronavirus pandemic — disregarding Republican claims that the change is unconstitutional and unwise.
The reform was adopted in a near-party-line 217-189 vote, with all Republicans opposed and joined in their nay votes by three Democrats and Libertarian Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.
Under the new rules, lawmakers can vote on behalf of up to 10 colleagues if they have written letters authorizing them to do so.
Democrats said it was a reasonable and temporary measure to ensure sick and vulnerable colleagues have a say in legislation during the the crisis.
But Republicans argued that in practice, the reform will allow party bosses to gain more control. Many Republicans said the change was unconstitutional, and could trigger a legal challenge.
“Aren’t we proving today that we don’t need a virtual Congress?” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
“We can continue to work in a safe and effective manner… Remote voting should be the final and last option.”
Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) recalled days of yore when lawmakers traveled from far away and convened even with enemy armies near Washington. He said his peers were “taking the lazy way out.”
Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis) argued the bill will decrease bipartisanship. “I talk to Democrats much more when we are in this building,” he said.
Grothman added that Democrats are also “penalizing the press” by discouraging in-person voting. “We should all be available to the press after these votes…. it’s an insult to the press,” he said.
Democrats fired back that Republicans were afraid of embracing modern technology. The change also allows remote committee hearings.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has worked as a House member for 39 years, jeered: “When C-SPAN was introduced — oh my! How radically that would change the House!”
The virus “poses a mortal danger to the health of the members, staff, press and the public. Therefore we must provide an alternative way to do the people’s business,” Hoyer said. “This change is not permanent.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) rebutted Hoyer, saying on behalf of Republicans, “We’re not intimidated by technology.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who lives near Washington, told colleagues he anticipated being used as a proxy, and pledged to be no more than a “letter carrier.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said some lawmakers are immunocompromised, including because they receive chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and can’t risk voting in person.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said he thought it would be “tone deaf” for lawmakers to accept an offer by the White House to share an Abbott testing platform that delivers rapid COVID-19 results — a proposed fix to allow in-person work.
Although proxy voting is unprecedented on the House floor, a March report by Democrats on the House Rules Committee noted proxy voting was used by House committees in the past.
“The practice was in place until the 104th Congress when it was disallowed as part of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s slate of changes to the House rules.
“Proxy voting also has precedent in the Senate where it is still used in committee,” the report said.
Adoption of the change was all but guaranteed and few journalists covered the debate live from Capitol Hill.
At points, passions flared. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) fumed that the change disrespected the Constitution.
“How about the million Americans who laid down their lives not for a wishy washy ‘Oh maybe we should be afraid we might get something and die.’
“They didn’t do that in the Spanish flu days, they didn’t do it in the Civil War, but now we’re going to do it? Come on,” Gohmert shouted.
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