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The House could vote as soon as Thursday to allow proxy voting during the coronavirus pandemic to avoid the public health risks of bringing all members back to Washington at once.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced Tuesday that he's advised as many House members as possible to return to D.C. this week for an expected vote Thursday on an anticipated $470 billion COVID-19 relief bill as well as a procedural change to allow proxy or distance voting.
Hoyer called the move "an important first step" and said he plans to push for further efforts like using video calls, such as FaceTime or Zoom, to call in votes to the floor and to conduct committee work. He sent a letter to the relevant committee leaders on Tuesday urging them to go further and develop guidelines for remote committee work and remote voting with technology.
The text of the House proxy voting plan is still in the works but, under the working proposal, an absent member would direct another member to vote on his or her behalf. The proxy voting would be a short-term fix and not a permanent rule change.
"I believe that alternative ought to be used only in the direst of circumstances where it is clear that members cannot for reasons unrelated to their own convenience or alternative schedules get to Washington to vote in person," Hoyer said.
In the earlier days of COVID-19, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tasked Rules Committee Chairman James McGovern, D-Mass., to develop a pandemic voting plan. The immediate idea he came up with and briefed Democrats on last week is proxy voting.
Under his plan, any member unable to travel to Washington due to the pandemic could authorize another member to vote on their behalf. They would have to direct that present member of their wishes on each vote — no general proxies would be allowed.
"This system would enable members to vote remotely in a secure way, without using the kind of technology that is susceptible to hacking or interference by foreign bad actors," McGovern said last week. "And because it doesn’t rely on some new technology being stood up and vigorously tested, it could give members a say on important legislation much more quickly."
Hoyer said the bipartisan congressional leaders in the Senate and House believe there is "no substitute" for in-person work and committee hearings, but this moment in history is so novel that Congress needs to adapt.
"We have an environment which I have never experienced in my lifetime and I'm older than all of you on this call," Hoyer, 80, told reporters Tuesday. "None of us have ever experienced anything even close to this."
The coronavirus has "forced us to do things in different ways – radically different in many respects – for the safety and security of the health of all of our country. And therefore we have to look at ways that perhaps we can still accomplish our business but do it in a way that is safe and secure for our members and for the public."