Should the House continue to allow voting by proxy?
The GOP decries pandemic rule that has proved useful for California’s members.
More than 70% of California’s House members — 38 out of 53, including four Republicans — have voted by proxy in the last year, compared with about 60% for all House members nationwide, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. A handful of Californians have voted by proxy more than 250 times since the pandemic began.
Democrats say proxy voting has allowed representatives to do their jobs while keeping themselves and their families safe from COVID-19. Many Republicans say representatives should be required to be physically present to vote, and if it’s safe enough for essential workers to be on the job, it is safe enough for Congress to meet in person.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) announced Friday that, in consultation with Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician on Capitol Hill, she has extended the ability to vote by proxy until Oct. 1.
When the pandemic began, the House had no plan in place for how to vote during a pandemic. Existing emergency plans focused largely on how to bring members physically together when they could not enter the Capitol.
As airlines cut back on flights, states required travelers to quarantine when they returned and lockdowns were instated, the question quickly arose: How could Congress operate if members were stuck scattered across the country?
After weeks of discussion, the House voted in May 2020 to change its rules to allow members to vote by proxy during the pandemic. The Senate has continued to require members to be physically present to vote.
The House rule change caused an immediate uproar. In a federal lawsuit, House Republican leaders argued that the Constitution requires members to be present in order to vote and that Congress didn’t allow proxy voting during other emergencies, including the Civil War and the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918.
But as the pandemic enters its 18th month, both parties are using the method, to varying degrees. Some members and experts are suggesting that it’s time Congress looks for a way to make it a permanent accommodation.
Doctors told Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk), 84, that because of her stroke history and age, it is too risky for her to travel, she said. She has used proxy voting more times than all but one other member of Congress — 385 times since the rule changed, according to the Brookings data.
Napolitano said she’s anxious to return to Washington but called proxy voting a “lifesaver” that has allowed her to continue doing her job.
“I could be exposed, and I don’t want to take a chance. So as long as I’m able to, I will take advantage of the proxy voting and thank the speaker and Dr. Monahan for realizing that it could be dangerous for some of us who have had preexisting conditions,” she said.
At least 70 representatives and senators have disclosed having COVID-19 since March 2020; more than 120 have said they were in contact with someone who had it.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), who had a stent installed in 2019, said his cardiologist told him he was at risk. He is also among the top California proxy voters — 339 times since the rule changed in May 2020, according to Brookings.
“It’s the same vote whether you cast it by proxy or in person. So you’re still representing your constituents on that issue for that vote,” Lieu said.
Earlier in the summer, as case numbers dropped and much of life returned to normal, it looked as if proxy voting might come to an end. Monahan relaxed masking rules in June, saying only unvaccinated House members needed to wear one.
Republican leaders urged Pelosi to let proxy voting expire in June.
“There is a lot more cooperation, a lot more agreements you can reach when you’re here in person, working together, than you just can get on a Zoom or WebEx call, or just somebody staying at home proxy voting and not coming here to Washington, when everyone who wants to can come,” Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said.
But the resurgence of COVID-19 has brought back mask-wearing and safety protocols across the country, including in the Capitol. Pelosi extended proxy voting, and when members and staff began testing positive again, Monahan again required House members and staff to wear masks, a change that set off a firestorm. Several Republican representatives refused to comply during House votes, risking a $500 fine the first time and $2,500 for subsequent violations.
In July, a federal appeals court threw out House Republicans’ legal challenge of proxy voting, saying it is up to the House to make its own rules.
Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) has an underlying medical condition. He has voted by proxy 363 times.
“The rule was written for people like me. The rule was because of a public health crisis and to protect people who were the most vulnerable and who really should avoid getting [COVID-19],” Lowenthal said. “There were people, especially early, who thought that I was doing this because I could break the rules and get away with it. I was hurt by that. It had nothing to do with not wanting to be here or had nothing to do with not wanting to do my job.”
Lowenthal and Lieu returned to Capitol Hill in July and were often spotted wearing KN95 masks, even when colleagues were barefaced.
“It sort of depends on what side of the floor I am [on],” Lieu said in mid-July. “Yesterday I wasn’t wearing a mask when I was primarily on the Democratic side, but I do have to go to the Republican side and talk to some members, and I feel safer wearing a mask.”
House members have had access to COVID-19 vaccines since December. Although there is no public accounting of member vaccination rates, Pelosi has cited the large percentage of House Republicans thought to have declined the vaccine as a reason to continue proxy voting.
The rule requires House members to certify in writing that they are “unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.”
But there has been apparent misuse on both sides of the aisle. Nine Republicans used proxy voting to cast votes while appearing at the border in late June with former President Trump. In May, seven Democrats used it while on a trip to Michigan with President Biden.
Brookings scholar Molly Reynolds found that members of both parties are substantially more likely to vote by proxy at the beginning and end of the week, when they travel to and from Washington. Votes on those days tend to be on bills with broad bipartisan support and were generally among the most missed before proxy voting was allowed.
“Many people have criticized proxy voting, and I would see it fundamentally as a success in allowing the House of Representatives to continue operating,” Reynolds said.