History in the making as House casts proxy votes in pandemic

WASHINGTON — It's a day for the history books on Capitol Hill: For the first time, House lawmakers were voting by proxy, an unprecedented move to avoid the risk of travel to Washington during the pandemic.

To mark Wednesday's history-making moment, House Republicans sued to stop the majority party from going ahead with the new system, in which absent lawmakers can instruct those present to vote on their behalf.

The House, with 431 current members and four vacancies, is trying to strike a balance between working from home during the coronavirus outbreak and honoring the Constitution’s requirement to be “present” and voting.

The House rules change is fast becoming a political test on party lines. Dozens of Democrats signed up to have colleagues cast their vote by proxy. Twenty Republicans joined in the leaders’ lawsuit against that move, which House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California says is unconstitutional.

“It's a dereliction of duty,” McCarthy said.

The House returned to Washington for an abbreviated two-day session as the city remains under stay home orders. Republicans in the Senate, which is on recess after spending much of May in the capital, have knocked the decision by top Democrats to largely stay out of session during the pandemic.

Deadlocked over the next big coronavirus relief bill, Congress is shifting its attention to a more modest overhaul of small-business aid in hopes of helping employers reopen shops and survive the pandemic.

But the agenda is in flux. There were no formal talks between congressional leaders on the next phase of the federal coronavirus response. Democrats have pushed a $3 trillion-plus measure through the House, but negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate and White House have yet to begin.

“We can’t keep propping up the economy forever,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday in Lexington, Kentucky. “The ultimate solution is to begin to get back to normal."

The day showcased the new proxy system. More than 70 lawmakers, all Democrats — many from California and other Western states — submitted formal proxy requests to the House Clerk as required ahead of the votes.

Democrats engineered the rules change over Republican opposition so the House could work from home, as many other Americans are doing. Approved earlier this month, it allows a lawmaker to formally ask a colleague to vote on his or her behalf. A single lawmaker can carry 10 votes.

As voting was underway on the first bill, the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, some 40 lawmakers rose to announce the proxy votes they represented. Lawmakers read out the names of their colleagues — some representing up to 10 representatives, others carried votes from just one or two. They stated each colleague's name and the person’s intended vote, as the actions were recorded.

Not even during the Civil War or any other emergency has the House allowed proxy floor votes. Voting dragged for more than an hour, with the House already operating under social-distancing rules that complicated proceedings. Only limited numbers of lawmakers, many wearing masks, are allowed in the House chamber at once to vote. The Uighur sanctions bill was approved.

Republicans, in filing the lawsuit Tuesday, said the new system threatens the legitimacy of House-passed bills, calling into question whether they will stand the constitutional test. They want to set an example by returning to work as President Donald Trump encourages businesses to reopen.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the suit was a “sad stunt” as the nation’s virus-related death toll approaches 100,000.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, expects the suit to be dismissed. He said the Constitution allows the House to make its own rules, and federal courts generally don’t get involved with the internal governance of another branch of government.

“Most of all,” he wrote by email, the suit “ignores the extraordinary circumstances and the reasons why this is needed to allow the House to do its business and still be safe for members and staff.”

It appears the House, with four times as many members as the 100-person Senate, could be out of session for much of June as well. Under the new rules, proxy voting is allowed only under emergency conditions, for 45 days at a time.

Congress is at a crossroads on the next virus relief bill. Democrats tout their 1,800-page bill as an opening salvo in negotiations, but Senate Republicans are are wary of another round of negotiations where Democrats and the White House call the shots. Republicans are also split on how much aid to provide state and local governments and other parts of the Democrats' proposal.

Even as they hit “pause” on a larger bill, Republicans are enthusiastic about improving the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established in March under the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill and was replenished last month. All told, Congress has provided about $660 billion for the program.

The bipartisan legislation that would give small employers more time to take advantage of federal subsidies for payroll and other costs. It was expected to pass the House this week.