Can the House Work From Home?

Before the country can reopen for business, Congress has to be able to handle its own business.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaks to members of the media as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Susie Lee listen at the U.S. Capitol, March 13, 2020 in Washington, DC.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaks to members of the media as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Susie Lee listen at the U.S. Capitol on March 13. Alex Wong/Getty Images

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Steny Hoyer doesn’t see what the holdup is with the House of Representatives adopting remote voting, using everyday videoconferencing platforms, for the duration of the pandemic.

“There are a number of different technologies available,” the House majority leader said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters, citing FaceTime, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. “Millions of people are using those regularly. I use FaceTime with my kids and my grandkids. They know it’s me, I know it’s them, and if I say something, they know it’s Steny Hoyer saying that.” The House, he said, doesn’t need to develop a secret, ultra-secure proprietary technology to ensure the integrity of its remote voting. “Frankly, if I’m in my den here in St. Mary’s County, and the clerk is looking at me over FaceTime, and I say ‘Aye,’ and the clerk recognizes me, they mark me as ‘Aye.’ ”

“I think it gives you a better sense,” he said. “I see you, you see me.”

So was there a disagreement between himself and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who’s been loath to fully embrace remote voting?

“Well, there are various views,” he said, without going so far as to call it a disagreement.

Pelosi’s opposition to remote voting has begun to thaw since she said, on the issue in a March 30 conference call with reporters, “Let’s not waste time on something that is not going to happen.” With her blessing, the House intends to vote later this week, when it returns to approve the latest coronavirus relief package, on a proposal from the Rules Committee that would allow for what it describes “low-tech remote voting.”

It’s a proxy voting system, scheduled to last through the pandemic. Under the proposal, members who can’t make it to Washington could authorize other members to cast votes on their behalf. No general proxy vote would be allowed—i.e., Matt Gaetz can’t authorize Doug Collins to “get in the Gaetz mindset” and give it his best stab at guessing how Gaetz might vote. The proxy must have explicit instruction for each measure.

The proposal is simultaneously a radical step for the slow-moving institution and a half-measure relative to the moment. Congress still has a long way to go before it gets back to normal, and—since everyone else’s getting back to normal depends on what Congress does—the urgency to return to normal is building by the day.

If approved, it would mark the first time in congressional history that members are able to cast votes from anywhere other than the House floor. That it would be such a foundational change to an institution that only recently got over its misgivings about exposed female arms is the reason why its passage this week isn’t guaranteed.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy offered a few questions to Pelosi about the proposal in a letter on Tuesday, indicating the Republican conference wasn’t entirely sold. “What are the details of this proposal,” he wrote, “how will it avoid potential abuses of power, and when do you expect this proposal to be made public for the necessary scrutiny and member input that changing 200 years of House precedent would merit?”

McCarthy’s letter—“Madam Speaker, It’s Time for Congress to Get Back to Work”—urged the speaker “to establish a clear, safe, and effective plan for reopening Congress.” Sure, the impetus behind McCarthy’s letter may have been a finger in the political winds, tapping the liberation! rhetoric seen recently in state protests, certain GOP governors’ decision to begin reopening nonessential businesses, and presidential tweets at odds with the administration’s official public health guidelines. But a proxy voting proposal, alone, is not nearly enough to bring Congress back to a “normal” state in which it’s capable of performing its full complement of responsibilities. As McCarthy writes, the current system of “centralized decision-making by a select group of leadership and staff that reduces the role of representative to merely voting ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on pre-drafted proposals” isn’t—or, at least, shouldn’t be—tenable.

Regular order in Congress requires committees meeting to develop and amend pieces of legislation that can be sent to the full body for votes, and to conduct oversight. Right now, the legislative process is one in which the four leaders on the House and Senate engage in a high-stakes, multitrillion-dollar contest of wearing out Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. A product is reached and immediately rushed through each chamber, and the fewer representatives or senators who show up to get in the way, the better. On the oversight front, there’s never been more need for committees to meet and grill administration officials or executives of companies receiving billions in federal cash with few strings attached. It’s just not happening.

The Rules Committee doesn’t have an answer for running committees at a distance yet. “Making changes to the standing rules of the House and putting in place technology to allow for virtual hearings and markups is complicated and can’t be done overnight,” the committee chairman, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, wrote in his statement announcing the proxy voting proposal. “But in the meantime, committees can hold briefings and roundtables to continue their work as we continue to work with the Committee on House Administration on these issues.”

Until the House can approve a plan that allows committees to conduct business as usual through a remote option, it can’t properly discharge its duties. As we move nearer to the summer, some vital pieces of annual legislation, such as spending bills for the next fiscal year and the annual National Defense Authorization Act, are coming up. Those require time-consuming, full-committee markups, not just Mnuchin and an attaché shuttling between leadership offices in a vacant building.

Hoyer, in a letter of his own to the House Rules and Administration committees on Tuesday, emphasized that “we must update our rules explicitly to allow remote committee proceedings or change the rules to define ‘present’ in a way that allows for Members participation through an approved video-conferencing platform.” Even if the Capitol complex were reopened and members were able to return, he wrote, “there will likely still be a need to make accommodations for the Floor and in committees for some time to maintain the necessary social distancing.” And that means retaining an option for virtual participation.

In his press call, Hoyer noted that “we have an environment that I have never experienced in our lifetime,” and that “this virus has forced us to do things in different ways, and be radically different in many respects.” The body is stubbornly resistant to change. For as long as the pandemic lasts, though, the return to a traditional Congress can only be achieved through radical adaptation.