In our new pandemic reality, weddings and funerals are held online. Corporate boards meet virtually, and episodes of Saturday Night Live are taped by the webcams of cast members. Even in the British House of Commons, where the Speaker wore a wig into the 1990s and there is still reserved space for MPs to put their swords, Prime Minister’s Questions have been held via Zoom. But, on Capitol Hill, Congress still meets the old- fashioned way. Or rather, it doesn’t.
Since the pandemic’s start, the House of Representatives, a body of 435 members where a single committee can have nearly 70 members, has scarcely met at all.
Twice, members of Congress have journeyed to Washington to approve bipartisan emergency funding deals that address the financial crash caused by the coronavirus. The first vote wasn’t even planned; members of Congress had to scramble to convene after maverick Republican, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, single-handedly torpedoed an effort to push the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill through on a voice vote.
But regular sessions of the House have come almost entirely to a halt and left members grappling with technological, constitutional, and institutional challenges ahead. The lower chamber has been more cautious about returning to Washington than the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been resistant to any significant changes in procedure, is expected to move forward on a number of nominations in the coming days. The House canceled a planned return in the first full week of May after the Capitol’s attending physician warned it would be unsafe to do so, and House Democrats compiled a report back in March on potential changes to the way business is conducted.
Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced last Monday on a conference call with House Democrats that she would move forward with a vote to allow proxy voting, the process has still been fraught with all the difficulties of fundamentally altering — even for a brief period—the rules of a legislative chamber established in the 18th century.
Pelosi’s announcement came less than a week after the establishment of a short-term bipartisan task force to study remote voting. It was created after Republicans protested a Democratic plan to push a vote on legislation that would allow members to vote by proxy and create a system where congressional committees could operate virtually.
The vote was called off after a phone call between Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in which the top-ranking Republican expressed concerns about such significant changes to the rules of the House being done on a partisan basis.
Democrats have emphasized voting by proxy on the floor of the House — rather than online or through remote sessions — for several reasons. The first is constitutional. There are potential pitfalls in the text of the Constitution that would rule out remote voting, and although these are likely to be surmountable, they present an additional risk. The second is technological. The membership of Congress is disproportionately old, and some lawmakers are not that very comfortable with technology. As Jim McGovern, the author of the proposal and chair of the House Rules Committee, put it to Intelligencer, “There are a lot of members who still use flip phones.”
There are also security concerns. Pelosi herself said in a television interview earlier in April, “People think we can do Congress by Zoom. Zoom is a Chinese entity that we’ve been told not to even trust the security of.”
Instead, proxy voting would allow members to specifically designate another member to vote for them on the floor. However, general proxies would be forbidden, and members would have to give specific instructions each time for how their vote would be cast in their absence.
Most congressional legislation does not happen on the floor, and the Democratic proposal would allow broad latitude for committees to meet remotely as well. There would be no floor votes via Zoom, but committee hearings and votes could potentially take place virtually.
In an interview with Intelligencer, McGovern argued that “the status quo is unworkable right now.” As chair of the Rules Committee, the veteran Massachusetts Democrat controls the framework under which the House of Representatives legislates. He argued that with Congress having just passed a massive stimulus bill, it needs to ensure “our oversight is doing oversight.” In addition, McGovern cited anxiety over a potential second wave of the coronavirus in the fall, and the need to be prepared for that eventuality.
McGovern also said he was alarmed by the behavior of some of his colleagues who seem to be minimizing the risk. He cited one member in particular who was not wearing a mask and coughing on the floor of the House during last week’s vote. Recounting how some mask-less members congregated and mingled on the floor last week, McGovern said, “It was shocking how many of our colleagues just defiantly ignored advice of the sergeant at arms and attending physician.”
Tom Cole, McGovern’s counterpart as the top Republican on the Rules Committee, was more skeptical of changes. Cole, a self-described institutionalist, worried emergency modifications to the House rules now would lead to long-term damage. “Once you set precedent, it’s there for all time. I promise you that there are plenty of members who want to go beyond that,” Cole told Intelligencer. He characterized the attitudes of those members as “I can do everything I need to from the district office on Zoom.”
The Oklahoma congressman also worried that moving toward a more virtual Congress would lead to more polarization, as “members are … in bubbles in their districts, only talking to people like themselves,” and noted that the only time some meet “with people with different political perspectives is in the House itself.”
Instead, Cole thinks the first step should be focusing on making the Capitol as safe as possible — he noted that, in addition to lawmakers, staff and media would be present whenever the House reconvened — and to gradually allow key committees to get back to work on issues like appropriations and the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
The differing opinions of the two lawmakers are as much about emphasis as policy. McGovern, too, worried about the possibility that proxy voting could usher in too much change, and talked about the need to “build in safeguards,” while Cole noted that technology allowed options that would be unthinkable as recently as 15 years ago, and acknowledged that those who wanted to exercise some of those options “have a case to make, and it’s a real one.”
They represent a fundamental difference that’s broader than partisan politics: Is it too risky to take action? Will altering the rules of the House set off a chain reaction of unintended consequences that will permanently reshape the legislative branch? Or is it too risky for lawmakers to return to Washington and potentially expose themselves, staffers, and reporters to the coronavirus? The answer does not always fall neatly along partisan lines.
Instead, the issue represents a more basic and traditional divide in politics, one that has been erased in recent years. It is between those who see significant change as the biggest threat to stable, functioning institutions and those who believe standing still is far more dangerous.
Regardless of where the debate ends up, there is basic agreement on one point: Things won’t return to normal anytime soon.