House passes historic rule change to allow remote voting and committee work during pandemic

House Democrats in a party-line vote Friday pushed through a historic rule change that will allow members to work remotely for the first time in the chamber’s more than 200-year history.

The resolution passed on a 217-189 vote.

Democrats argued that the time had come for Congress to adapt like the rest of the country to social distancing rules and find ways to adequately do their jobs remotely.

“Convening Congress must not turn into a super-spreader event,” said Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat. “Technology has changed considerably over the last 231 years. There are now tools available that make temporary committee proceedings and remote voting on the House floor possible. Not forever, just temporarily during this emergency.”

Republicans rejected the new rules, arguing it was a breach of tradition and power grab from the majority. They said that the fact members were voting in person Friday proved they could be phasing in a return to Capitol Hill the same as other essential workers.

“The work of our frontline heroes is the definition of essential. It cannot be done remotely or by proxy. Why should Congress be any different? We are supposed to represent the people,” said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican. “A virtual Congress would be a Congress that is connected to the internet, but disconnected from the American people.”

Now members will be allowed to cast their votes by designating another member to do it for them on the House floor. They must notify the House clerk in person. Each proxy must receive written instructions for each vote and is only allowed to stand in for up to 10 members.

For committees, chairs can decide whether to hold entire virtual or hybrid meetings where some members are physically present in Washington, D.C. Any virtual participants have to use software approved by the Chief Administrative Officer, but they will be allowed to vote on committee items.

The House Administration Committee also will be tasked to study and approve a secure way to vote via virtual technology — which can be approved by the House Rules Committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The authorization lasts for 45 days — which can be renewed and modified — if the pandemic continues.

“God willing, this will go away,” Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, told reporters this week. “The District of Columbia has just pushed back their shelter in place. I mean, I would hope that it wouldn’t be any longer than that, but we just have to judge at the time.”

While most of the chamber’s 430 members were able to return on Friday for votes, they were operating under starkly different procedures directly related to the debate and voting process.

They were divided into six, alphabetically sorted groups of about 70 to keep the lawmakers socially distanced on the House floor.

The House currently has five vacant seats.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, encouraged members to use electronic voting machines spaced throughout the chamber and stay in their offices until it’s their designated time to vote.

Rep. Jared Huffman, California Democrat, shared a photo of the packed plane he took to travel to Washington and expressed his concern about risking exposure to the deadly virus.

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