House Democrats Back Changing Rules to Allow Remote Voting During Pandemic

WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday threw her support behind a plan to allow House members to cast votes by proxy, conceding for the first time that the coronavirus pandemic that has forced Congress into an extended recess would require historic modifications to how the institution has operated for centuries.

The announcement was a stark shift for Ms. Pelosi, who as recently as last week dismissed the idea of remote voting, which would require a change to House rules. Speaking to reporters shortly after noon by teleconference, she said the issue was not yet settled — “It’s not as easy as you might think” — but made clear that she believed change was coming.

“Everybody’s working so hard on all of these initiatives, including on how we can come together, whether it’s by proxy voting or remote voting or whatever it is,” Ms. Pelosi said then. “When we are ready, we will do it.”

A few hours after Ms. Pelosi spoke, Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the Rules Committee chairman who has been studying the issue at the speaker’s request, briefed his fellow Democrats on a private conference call on his recommendation that House rules be changed to allow remote voting by proxy during the pandemic.

Ms. Pelosi’s spokesman said she backed Mr. McGovern’s plan, which if approved by the House would pave the way for the first time in the history of Congress for members to cast votes other than in person. It would allow lawmakers who could not travel to Washington because of the pandemic to give specific instructions on each vote to a colleague authorized to vote on their behalf.

With Congress sidelined by the pandemic and unable to return to Washington until May at the earliest, Ms. Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, have been under mounting pressure to come up with alternative ways of conducting business. Their current means of operating — trying to push through legislation on a consensus basis and hoping that nobody will object — is increasingly untenable, with partisan divisions mounting over what to include in the next round of coronavirus relief.

Other senior Democrats, including Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, have embraced the concept of remote voting in one form or another in recent days.

In an interview, Mr. McGovern described proxy voting as a “low tech” solution that struck a middle ground, enabling lawmakers to vote in person or not, depending on their preference and ability to return to Washington. Unlike electronic voting, he said, proxy voting could be instituted immediately without having to test new technology or worry about security breaches or interference by foreign actors.

“This is what we’re comfortable with doing now that I think poses the least amount of risk,” he said. “For those who feel they want to be here and engage in debate, they can come back, but for those members who are in states where they are instructed not to leave their homes or not to travel, they can still participate.”

Earlier, Ms. Pelosi noted that the House would have to reconvene to approve the creation of a special committee that she has proposed to oversee the federal government’s response to the coronavirus. Lawmakers could move at the same time to change the voting rules, she said.

Mr. McGovern said he hoped the speaker could work out an agreement with Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, to adopt the rule change by unanimous consent, so that lawmakers did not have to come back.

But any lawmaker could stand in the way of that plan, and the last time leaders tried to spare members a trip back to Washington to vote — when the House considered the $2.2 trillion stimulus law — Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, did just that. He has indicated that he will object again to any move to hold a House vote without a quorum present.

As to the sudden shift in sentiment, Mr. McGovern said Ms. Pelosi and others were simply bowing to the reality of the pandemic.

“I don’t think everybody fully appreciated the challenge that was before us in terms of how long we need to be social distancing from each other,” he said. “I think members of both parties really want to see Congress functioning fully, having hearings, doing oversight.”

Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and the chairman of the Rules Committee, said on Thursday that he had initiated conversations with the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and others to discuss remote hearings and ways to “allow members to be at least virtually together to collect information.”

Senate rules already allow voting by proxy during committee meetings. But Mr. Blunt said there was little talk of allowing remote voting on the Senate floor.

“I think legislative bodies don’t function well unless they function collectively,” Mr. Blunt said, adding that other Senate leaders shared his view.

“We’ve dealt with these issues and even more difficult scenarios than whether you should get on an airplane or not because you might catch a virus,” Mr. Blunt said. “I think it’s in the past been decided — and my guess is we will continue to decide — that legislative bodies have to meet in order to function.”

But the House appears to be headed in a different direction. Mr. Hoyer, who also opposed remote voting at the outset of the coronavirus crisis, told reporters on Wednesday that he now favors voting by FaceTime. Other lawmakers have been impressed with an electronic voting system, developed by a private technology firm, Markup.Law, that runs on the Microsoft Teams platform and uses two-factor authentication.

One thing they all seem to agree on is that whatever method is chosen, it should be used sparingly.

“I was very resistant to it in a way that I think the speaker has been,” Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who is also a member of leadership, said in an interview Wednesday. “I think this pandemic has obviously raised the specter that we may have to develop a system where in a very narrow set of cases we are able to vote remotely, but I feel very strongly that it has to be in very limited circumstances.”

Beyond voting, lawmakers must also figure out how to conduct hearings and debate legislation remotely. They are taking tentative steps into the virtual world.

While Ms. Pelosi conducted her weekly news briefing on Thursday by phone from her home in San Francisco, Mr. McCarthy live-streamed his from his office in the Capitol. Seated in front of his laptop and wearing wireless earphones, the minority leader he took questions, a bottle of hand sanitizer visible on the bureau behind him.

Mr. McGovern’s committee met privately Thursday on Zoom — its first bipartisan virtual meeting. Also on Thursday, more than a dozen former members of Congress convened a private virtual mock hearing on Zoom, as a kind of “proof of concept” demonstration to current members of Congress.

The star witness was David H. Petraeus, the retired Army general and former Central Intelligence Agency director, who testified about the military’s use of secure videoconferencing technology. A British member of Parliament also testified, as did advocates and academics, and officials from Microsoft and Zoom.

There were some glitches — the audio went out a couple of times — but the session ran relatively smoothly. Brian Baird, a former Democratic congressman from Washington, presided over the session, and said later that it required more dexterity than leading an in-person meeting.

“In a real hearing, you can just listen to the witness,” he said. “In this hearing, I was having to look on the chat function and coordinate with a staffer effectively on Slack. I was getting multiple hands raised at the same time.”

Not everyone was completely sold. As the session wrapped up, Vic Fazio, a former Democratic congressman from California, said he was concerned that virtual hearings would be “so effective that people are going to want to do it rather than come to Washington.” He also warned that it would be no replacement for actual interaction between human beings.

“I can see members, down the road, saying, ‘Maybe we come every other week,’” he said. “The dynamic that makes Congress effective when it’s functioning will be somewhat lost. We need to make this not an easy thing to do.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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