WASHINGTON — When the House revamped its rules in the early days of the pandemic to allow lawmakers to vote remotely, Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina was among 161 Republicans who sued to block the arrangement, arguing that it “subverts” the Constitution.
But those objections were a distant memory by late June, when Norman and several other Republicans skipped town during a legislative workweek to rally at the southwestern border with Donald Trump. While they glad-handed with the former president, the lawmakers certified on official letterhead that they were “unable to physically attend proceedings in the House chamber” because of the coronavirus and designated colleagues in Washington to cast proxy votes in their places.
The arrangement might have attracted more notice had it not become so widespread since the House adopted rules last spring to allow members, for the first time, to cast votes without being physically present in the chamber. Once billed as a temporary crisis measure to keep Congress running and lawmakers protected as a deadly pandemic ripped across the country, the proxy voting system has become a tool of personal and political convenience for many House members.
Fourteen months after it was approved, with the public health threat in retreat and most members of Congress vaccinated, a growing number of lawmakers are using the practice to attend political events, double down on work back home or simply avoid a long commute to Washington.
Perhaps no one has benefited more from the arrangement than Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recently informed lawmakers that proxy voting would be in effect for the remainder of the summer. It has allowed Pelosi, whose majority is so slim that she can afford to lose no more than four Democrats if every member is present and voting, to all but ensure that absences alone do not cost her pivotal support.
Rank-and-file lawmakers have also taken full advantage. The day before the border junket, politically endangered Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., used proxy voting so that he could instead accompany President Joe Biden on a visit through his home state.
In February, a dozen Republicans including Matt Gaetz of Florida and Devin Nunes of California were criticized for doing the same to attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida — after many of them had excoriated Democrats for their use of proxy voting. Around the same time, several Democrats used proxies to cast votes to attend protests in Minneapolis around the murder trial of Derek Chauvin.
And data suggests that lawmakers regularly use the system to extend their weekends back home. According to outside experts who compiled and analyzed data on proxy voting in the House, its use often ticks up on days lawmakers are scheduled to fly in and out of town. The House returns Monday after a two-week break; on its final day in session before the recess began, 39 members used proxies instead of showing up in person to vote.
“People using it are lying,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., heaping criticism on leaders in both parties for doing little to police abuses. Congress itself, he asserted, is paying the price.
“It indulges the worst impulses of the modern congressman,” Gallagher added, “which is to spend all their time flying around the country, raising money and avoiding all the nuts and bolts of legislative work.”
Many lawmakers, including some who face serious health risks, use the rules in the way they were intended: to protect themselves from exposure to the coronavirus or to facilitate work that would otherwise be difficult or impossible given the added burdens of travel and family care during a pandemic.
Democratic leaders say that a full return to normal operations is simply not yet possible while the country remains under a state of emergency and many Americans are unvaccinated, and their aides point out that there remains a risk of breakthrough infections.
But with the current rules in need of reauthorization in August, senior Democrats are among those pushing for a fuller debate — both over when to end the emergency powers in place and whether a hidebound institution like the House of Representatives ought to take a cue from other American institutions and use the pandemic as an impetus for more lasting change.
“We’ve done this because we had no choice,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. and chair of the Rules Committee. “The question now is, do we get rid of all of it, or do we keep some of it? I don’t know what the answer to that ultimately will be, but I think this is a moment that we have that conversation.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. and the majority leader, has emerged as the most influential proponent for adopting a more tailored electronic system that would allow lawmakers indisposed by pregnancy, serious illness or even a natural disaster in their districts to vote remotely after the pandemic ends.
Although they insist it is not their motivation, leaders like Hoyer and Pelosi have benefited from the emergency authority, which has ensured that all 220 Democrats can cast votes regardless of where they are — a potent tool as they try to wrangle one of the narrowest majorities in decades. Pelosi, who hesitated to move to remote work in the first place, has not said if she would support making the practice permanent in some form.
Nearly 3 in 4 House Democrats have voted remotely at least once under the current rules, according to an analysis by CNN, and six Democrats have not voted in person since January, including some who have serious health risks. Republican use has been less widespread, but dozens of party members have also voted by proxy.
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., said she hoped that shared experience could help spur a broader reconsideration of what kind of work needed to be done in person and what did not. Porter, who represents a slice of Orange County, said she saved nearly 20 hours in travel time some weeks when she opted to work in her district instead.
“We do need to debate on the floor. We do need to see each other’s faces,” Porter said. “But 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 on a post office.”
But Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, and other top Republicans have taken a hard line against the practice. They contend that the ease of remote work is slowly changing the character of an institution premised for more than two centuries on physically coming together. They have vowed to immediately do away with proxy voting should they win back the majority in 2022.
“Congress is like a small town — you miss the whole relationship,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. and the top Republican on the rules panel, calling the changes so far “the first step on a very slippery slope.”
Members who do not show up in person, he argued, are likely to miss the backroom conversations, face-to-face debate and arm-twisting on which Congress operates.
“As a whip, it’s much more difficult to whip somebody, to persuade them, if they are in another place, distant and not part of the give and take,” said Cole, one of his party’s designated nose-counters, who has himself voted by proxy.
For now, Republican leaders have largely given their own members, like Norman, a pass for using proxy voting, conceding that as long as it is in the House rules, they will look the other way. A spokesperson for Norman declined to comment.
But McCarthy’s stance is likely to make it harder to reach the sort of bipartisan consensus that would almost certainly be needed to make any changes truly lasting. Republicans’ lawsuit to strike down proxy voting as unconstitutional is still slowly winding its way though the courts.
Pressed on the opposition’s concerns, McGovern, chair of the Rules Committee, insisted that the dysfunction plaguing the House had less to do with remote legislating than with the ideas that Republicans have espoused, including their efforts to minimize or justify the Capitol riot.
“What I am worried about right now is, do we have people who continue to deny or downplay what happened on Jan. 6 or circle the wagons around the crazy lies around the election?” McGovern said. “That is destroying Congress — not the ability of a small group of people to vote remotely or by proxy.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.