In an outrageous letter, two anti-Trump organizations have written the Administration Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives advocating that lawmakers should be able to vote without attending congressional sessions.
In their defense of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s power grab, the organizations, Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network, justify past corruption and advocate for institutionalizing a legislative practice that is an affront to the whole process of representative government. In doing so, they place the blame for current congressional dysfunction on the 1994 Republican Revolution using a collection of liberal mischaracterizations from the past quarter-century.
What the American people confer on their representatives is a vote. Each vote represents the sacred trust that the lawmaker will use it to further the best interests of the country and constituents. Assigning that trust to someone else, even under the strictest rules, is to abrogate the basic responsibility of a legislator.
If you cannot do what you were elected to do, even in difficult situations, you have no business asking people to give you their permission to cast their vote. I have witnessed times on the House floor wherein members were brought from their hospital beds to cast a crucial vote. It is that important.
Abuse Through Proxy
In the midst of the Wuhan virus pandemic and with little public awareness, Pelosi decided House members should not be put at risk and should be able to assign their votes to another representative. That process was abused immediately as some members decided to fundraise or do other things during House sessions and let someone else cast their votes.
Such abuse is not surprising. Before committee proxy voting was ended in the 1995 reforms, committee chairmen used proxies to thwart the judgement of the people in the room who were engaged in the debate. Time after time, the votes of the people present would be counted, but the majority of those there to vote would be overturned when the chairman cast proxies.
When we did away with that process, the chairman’s job became tougher because keeping a quorum was necessary to conduct planned business. As a chairman at the time, I had a one-vote majority in my committee, so the work of keeping those members present and voting was difficult, but it was also right.
Those who now want to extend proxy voting to the full House claim our current communication tools permit distance legislating. It is true that members can participate in committee hearings from afar. It is not preferable, but it is possible. But for voting, the American people have every right to expect their representatives to be there in person.
One of the most important parts of legislating is interpersonal relationships among lawmakers. Decisions often reflect informal conversations or needed last-minute changes when someone has recognized a flaw in the bill under consideration. That input is lost when people are many miles away.
The Gingrich Myth
The real focus of the argument for remote proxy voting is that former Speaker Newt Gingrich destroyed the comity with which Congress used to operate. So it is agrued we must reconstitute the House using new methods and technologies.
In their letter, Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network briefly acknowledge that Gingrich modernized the House in important ways, but then turn to criticizing his speakership with long-held liberal complaints about the operational reforms he instituted. They claim he “undermined Congress as an institution” by centralizing power in the speaker’s office, which led to “the evisceration of its committees and personal offices, and the undermining of its support offices and agencies.”
What really happened was that many of the structures Democrats had built over 40 years of control were eliminated. One suite of offices on the first floor of the Capitol was found to have been turned over to labor unions as lobbying headquarters. Naturally, they were asked to vacate. Bloated committee staffs were cut, but the minority party was given control of one-third of each committee budget, unlike the past practice of relying on committee chairmen for personnel and budget allocations for the majority and minority.
Demand Progress and the Lincoln Network point out that the Office of Technology Assessment was defunded. It was, but for the simple reason that it had proved itself incapable of working to a legislative rhythm. Studies it conducted would show up months after lawmakers had already considered the relevant legislation.
The chief complaint against Gingrich is the old bromide that he destroyed the House’s ability to work together to get things done. The Democrats have peddled that story for 25 years. If you examine the record, it is nonsense.
In 1996, under Gingrich’s leadership, every appropriation bill passed the House singularly with overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats. Major legislation on items such as welfare reform, communications, food and drug reform, and even a balanced budget was passed with significant bipartisan support during the Gingrich years.
Changed Power Structures
What did undermine Congress’ ability to compromise for effective policymaking? You must go back 20 years before Republicans took control of the House. The Watergate class of Democrats elected in 1974 is largely responsible. Their reforms sought to reduce the power of political parties in favor of empowering individual campaigns because many of these Democrats had very leftist positions that were out of step with Democratic Party regulars.
The party structures threatened these freshmen, so party fundraising capability was neutered. What evolved was massive fundraising by individual congressional campaigns instead of reliance on party funds. Ignored was the fact that parties were the umbrella organizations that brought together disparate groups in order to create majorities. That function got subjugated to ideological leftist purity.
The result of those 1974 decisions was the rise of congressional candidates forging their own political networks often to the exclusion of local party leaders. Further, it led to the creation of leadership political action committees designed to promote individual agendas that became fundraising rivals to the party structures. The obscene amounts of money required to run campaigns today can be traced to these decisions.
Changed political centers detrimentally affected Congress. Factionalism has overtaken the unifying nature of parties. Fundraising battles often decide leadership races. Social media exacerbates the problem by dividing public opinion, with no clear institutions capable of taking multiple viewpoints and welding them into broadly accepted policy frameworks. Congress reflects all this disparity and is weakened by it.
The answer is certainly not to further weaken the House with remote voting. When members are not on Capitol Hill to participate in representational duties, a few power brokers control the real decisions. Already this year, bills containing trillions of dollars in spending have passed regardless of the fact that many members had no more than a cursory understanding of their contents.
We should not allow those who want permanent power in Congress to exploit a crisis to redefine representation. Proxy remote voting is a travesty. A pandemic of fear should not cause us to lose the accountability of real representative government.