- The coronavirus outbreak complicates how members of Congress do their job.
- Votes require lawmakers to travel from across the country to Washington, pack together in Capitol elevators and corridors, and gather in large chambers to cast their votes.
- At least five members of Congress tested positive for the coronavirus. One of them, Ben McAdams of Utah, had to be hospitalized.
- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, is proposing a rule change that would allow members to vote by proxy that the House could vote on as soon as Thursday.
- This means a member of Congress would be able to cast a vote on behalf of an absent colleague who could not travel to Washington to vote.
- However, some House Republicans vociferously oppose the plan, seeing it as a break with tradition or a Democratic overreach.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Congress faces a number of tough questions in the time of coronavirus: how much money should they allocate to small businesses? Who should get stimulus checks, and for how much? How should testing be conducted on a national scale?
Also: How do they vote?
Congress needs to function in order for millions of Americans to receive the relief they need from the health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus. The tactics required to mitigate risk of contracting the coronavirus — avoiding travel, maintaining at least six feet of space between people, avoiding groups larger than ten — are all anathema to the way that Congress traditionally operates. For weeks, lawmakers have sought to find a way to make it safe for members to vote, a need that became all the more urgent after at least five members tested positive, including one who later required hospitalization.
At the moment, representatives must appear in the House chamber in person to record their vote. This week, Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, has proposed changing House rules to allow proxy voting, which would allow members to vote on behalf of absent colleagues. The vote to change the rules could happen as soon as Thursday morning, he told members in a letter.
To vote by proxy, members would have to give their stand-in on the House floor specific instructions for how to vote, including on procedural votes, according to House Democratic leadership.
“There are some members who are particularly vulnerable to either themselves because of some preexisting condition or they’re caring for relatives, moms or dads, or others, and they are concerned about coming and then having to quarantine themselves for 14 days when they get back. So that’s a real concern,” Hoyer told reporters on a Tuesday conference call, the Hill reported.
But complicating matters is opposition from a vocal faction of House Republicans, who see the rule change as undercutting tradition or a partisan ploy from the Democrats.
Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois, told The Hill that introducing proxy voting was “a complete overreach” and accused Pelosi and Democrats of taking “advantage of implementing a process like proxy voting to give themselves more power when Congress is still vulnerable right now.”
“I just think is absurd and I think it silences individual members of Congress who were sent here to cast votes on behalf of our constituents,” Davis said.
Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, has been advocating for Congress to return to Washington. On Tuesday,he filmed himself in an empty House chamber to call for lawmakers to return for votes and debates on relief legislation to combat the coronavirus. He later told The Hill he opposed the plan for proxy voting.
Before a Senate vote on a $450 billion package to provide additional relief to small businesses and hospitals, Republican Utah Sen. Mike Lee said that lawmakers needed to return to Washington to do their jobs.
“All the essential work of Congress — that is any step necessary in order to enact legislation, the task of legislating itself — can be done only by members who are voting and present in their respective legislative chamber, either this Senate or the House of Representatives,” Lee said. “This is a non-delegable duty.”
“We cannot do the job for which we were elected without actually being here,” he later said.
In a letter to the chairs of the House committees on Administration and Rules, Hoyer explained that he saw proxy voting as merely a first step, and that he believed video technology would provide more transparency.
“I have already indicated my clear preference for voting by the use of video-conferencing technology that millions of Americans now use to conduct business,” Hoyer wrote. “These systems allow one to see and identify the person who is speaking and hear what is being said with little doubt about the identity of the participant. Used for the purposes of Floor and committee business, there would be little doubt who voted aye or nay.”
He added, “While any distance-voting is less optimal than in-person voting or debating in committee or on the Floor of the House, the sound and image of the Member doing so virtually is far superior to the utilization of proxies.”
Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat who spent 8 days in the hospital battling COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, told Insider in early April that he supported remote voting options, but only “rarely” and in times of “national emergency.”
“We should do everything we can to like everybody else in this country to limit the spread of this virus, by, by working from home to the greatest extent possible,” McAdams said, “But also recognize that we have an important job to do and that includes passing legislation that can assist in slowing the spread of this virus and, and also stabilizing the economy and helping those families that are really bearing the hardship of this pandemic.”