It’s Way Past Time To End the Absentee Congress

It’s Way Past Time To End the Absentee Congress

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) met with protestors on the East Front of the Capitol last Wednesday, she echoed the nation’s outrage over the horrific killing of George Floyd while in police custody. She also provided ample justification for ending the constitutionally questionable experiment in proxy voting that the House recently authorized.

It raises an obvious question of double standards: If Pelosi can gather with masses of protestors in Washington, why can’t she convene Congress in person? Officials in Congress have come up with numerous protocols to protect members of Congress as well as their staff from contracting the coronavirus—measures not always used by the protestors. Yet in the past week, several members who refused to travel to Washington for votes in late May personally attended protests in their districts.

These elected officials have their priorities backward. If members can protest in mass gatherings with their constituents, they can engage in another mass gathering to represent their constituents—by flying to Washington and doing the job that taxpayers paid them to do.

Resolution Passed in May

On May 15, Democrats in the House of Representatives voted along party lines on a resolution permitting the speaker to authorize remote voting by proxy for 45-day periods. The following week, Pelosi issued such an authorization, citing health issues surrounding the coronavirus. The House utilized proxy voting during three sessions from May 26-28, after which House Democratic leaders said they would keep the chamber in recess for most of June.

Pelosi did not count herself alone among House Democrats in deciding the Floyd protests superseded prior health concerns over large public events. A review of their Twitter accounts reveals that at least one-fifth of the 70 House Democrats who utilized proxy voting to avoid assembling in Washington attended some form of mass gathering—whether a roundtable, press conference or protest—in the days following Floyd’s killing.

Pelosi wore a mask when meeting with the protestors, and many of the House Democrats who attended protests did likewise. But particularly given the new social distancing precautions at the Capitol, it becomes difficult to square the notion of voting by proxy, or keeping the House in recess, to avoid gathering 435 House members in Washington during the pandemic when some of those very same folks attend even larger gatherings in their home districts.

The ironies of these circumstances abound. House Democrats who voted to impeach President Trump for abuse of power have increased the authority of Pelosi and House leaders, passing a resolution that permits as few as 20 members physically present in Washington to convene the House of Representatives. Those protesting systemic injustices have temporarily curtailed their ability to change that system, by absenting themselves from Washington for weeks at a time.

A Better Alternative

Of course, some members of Congress have understandable health-related reasons for avoiding travel to Washington. Others may feel a need to quarantine to protect vulnerable family members, or after possible exposure to the virus themselves.

In those circumstances, the longstanding legislative custom of pairing can allow members on both sides of an issue to express their views in a way that will not affect legislative votes. For instance, in October 2018 Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) wanted to support the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh—but his daughter’s wedding prevented him from making the Saturday vote. In this case, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who opposed the nomination, voted “present” rather than “no,” so that her vote would essentially “cancel out” Daines’ non-vote.

End the Proxy Charade

Proxy voting in Congress presents numerous issues. For one, it raises questions about whether members not physically present in Washington count towards the quorum required by the Constitution for each chamber of Congress to conduct business. House Republicans have already filed a lawsuit against the proxy voting system on that basis.

Proxy voting also empowers party leaders over the rank-and-file, by keeping the latter more distant from the Capitol for long periods. The bosses in Congress make too many decisions unilaterally as it is—House members should halt the Pelosi power grab by stopping the charade of proxy voting.

For those whose health issues preclude travel, both parties should facilitate a pairing process through the usual channels. In all other cases, Congress should return to in-person voting, with appropriate social distancing and health protocols in place. It’s time to end proxy voting, and nix Pelosi’s Potemkin Congress.

Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.
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