Time and time again the United States Congress has stood by the mandate to be physically present in order to cast a vote. However, as the days go on and the United States continues to be ravaged by the coronavirus, the virus continues to prove itself to be more powerful than anyone could have imagined.
Since its founding in 1789, in order to cast a vote or fully participate in a hearing, congressional members were required to be present – no matter the state of the nation. In order to truly be a congress, people have to come together, per the definition of the word. However, on Friday, May 15, the House of Representatives voted to allow remote voting in wake of the current pandemic. No longer is a lawmaker required to leave the safety of their home to carry out their duties.
These new rules passed largely on party lines, 217-189, and immediately went into effect. This move allows any member of Congress to vote remotely by proxy, or someone who is available to be on the floor of the House. Moreover, a member of Congress can vote on behalf of ten others who are unable to physically be in Washington D.C. Also included, was a process in which congressional members will eventually be able to cast their votes from their homes, whether through a system of video conference call – which is what most private-sector companies have moved too – or, a secure online portal system, all pending certification from the House Administration Committee. These rules allowed this committee to move forward with conducting a survey and certifying a new way of remote voting, as well as the ability to implement a trial period to ensure all members of congress are able to comfortably vote and carry out their sworn duties.
“I don’t suggest these changes lightly, I still believe that we do our best work in person and side by side. But we must temporarily embrace technology during this unprecedented time,” says Rules Committee Chairman Jim McDovern (D-Mass.) who pushed for this rule to be passed. The move to voting by proxy is unprecedented and is the largest change to the day-to-day function of the House of Representatives since the electronic voting installation in 1973.
The Committee On Rules released a staff report exploring options for remote voting, which included a provisional quorum. This was adopted three years after the attacks of September 11, and “allows the house to use a provisional quorum based on the number of Members able to return to the Capitol if, post-catastrophe, a traditional quorum cannot be achieved after 96 hours of attempted due to a ‘natural disaster, attack, contagion, or similar calamity rendering Representatives incapable of attending the proceedings of the House.’” This report includes various other available options that exist under the existing rules of the House, as well as options for possible rule changes that would benefit the members of Congress.
In reconsidering what “present” connotates in the 21st century, so comes the realization that one does not always have to physically be present in order to participate. Democrats, who control the House, have repeatedly argued that they are simply attempting to discover an alternative path for the House to perform its fundamental capacities when the coronavirus has continuously made coming together in Washington a hazard of wellbeing. The Democrats promise these changes will be temporary as the nation continues to fight this pandemic, and insist that the only other alternative to this decision is a House of Representatives that is rendered unable to properly perform its duties.
House Republicans, however, argue that these measures go too far, and that the effects of the coronavirus are being exaggerated. Some even questioned the constitutionality of remote voting. The staff report addresses these concerns, and states “the constitutionality of remote voting is an untested principle. As a threshold question, this uncertainty should give the House pause from transitioning wholesale to any remote voting or “virtual presence” scheme of conducting business. If challenged, remote voting would be a novel question for a court and there is no guarantee of a favorable ruling affirming its constitutionality. Engaging in an untested practice, especially when considering complex and critical legislation in response to an historic pandemic, presents risks.” However, it also states that that “the Constitution explicitly provides each house with the ability to make its own rules (Art. 1, Sec. 5, Cl. 2).”
These rules were originally proposed last month. However, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pulled them last minute to see if discussions with House Republicans would lead to any other potential options for moving forward during this unprecedented time. House Republicans proposed various ways for lawmakers to reconvene in person, one proposal included implementing safety measures such as installing plexiglass at security checkpoints and committee daises. However, House Democrats argued that these measures were simply not enough to protect members of the House from contracting the coronavirus. Noting that they were incorporating suggestions from Republicans, the Democrats moved forward with the voting.