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For Some in Congress, Proxy Voting Was a Game Changer. It’s About to Go Away

6 minute read

For more than two years, members of the House of Representatives have enjoyed a privilege unavailable to any of their predecessors: the ability to vote on legislation without being in the Capitol.

The practice, put in place in response to the pandemic, has afforded some lawmakers a semblance of work-life balance like never before. One voted by proxy while caring for her ailing 86-year-old mother. Another did so after being diagnosed with renal cancer. Some voted by proxy while taking maternity or paternity leave. Others designated colleagues to cast their votes when their flights were delayed or when they came down with COVID-19. And, of course, it was a boon to those who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

For proxy voting to continue, it would need to be included in the House rules package of the new Congress. With Republicans set to take the House majority on Jan. 3, the practice appears doomed. Like a no-nonsense boss, GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who has most House Republicans’ support in his bid for Speaker, wants everyone back in the office.

McCarthy is one of a small group of House lawmakers who has never cast a vote by proxy. He was opposed to the accommodation from the beginning and quickly filed a lawsuit alleging the practice was unconstitutional, only to see the Supreme Court decline to take it up this year.

Two days after the midterms, Speaker Nancy Pelosi extended the covered period for proxy voting through Christmas. Around the same time, McCarthy sent a letter to members of his party requesting support for his speaker’s bid, promising to “immediately reopen the Capitol and end the Democrat proxy voting and remote work schemes that have inflicted untold damage to this institution.”

Since the first session of Congress in 1789 through 2020, members of Congress have had to be present to vote. More than two centuries of thinking shifted quickly after the pandemic struck. As employers began implementing remote work policies, the proxy voting option was meant to help politicians avoid spreading the virus by reducing travel and large gatherings on the House floor. (The Senate does not allow proxy voting on the Senate floor.)

Upon choosing colleagues to cast votes on their behalf, members attested that they couldn’t attend proceedings because of “the ongoing public health emergency.” Over time, it became clear that not everyone was using proxy voting for health reasons.

“I’m not their personal medical doctor,” says Rep. Bryan Steil, a Wisconsin Republican who has never voted by proxy. “But I doubt that 100% of those people who are signing that sheet of paper are doing so honestly and honorably. … Unless the coronavirus is also somehow uniquely correlated with good golfing weather.”

Though Steil is open to a conversation about ways to accommodate reasonable conflicts in the future, he would want to ensure there were guardrails in place to prevent members from abusing the system. He adds that the lawmakers he has been talking to about the issue—Republicans and Democrats showing up in-person—are eager to return to normal.

Bradford Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which works with lawmakers’ offices to improve their effectiveness, recently spoke with a bipartisan group of members of Congress who felt exactly that way.

“They did bemoan the last few years,” he says. “They see less of members of their own party and other parties. Because often, if you’ve gone through a series of votes, and you’re on the floor for two or three hours, you’re having good facetime with a colleague.”

Meanwhile, some members applaud the additional flexibility proxy voting has given their colleagues. Among them is Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat who has cast thousands of votes on behalf of other lawmakers.

“We have a lot of plus-seventies in Congress,” Beyer told Insider in April. “We also have a lot of young people, with families and children, and I think it was really valuable for those folks with kids at home to be able to stay for the parent-teacher conference.”

Some members have capitalized on their ability to vote by proxy to hit the campaign trail. Democrat Karen Bass voted by proxy this year while engaged in her successful bid for Los Angeles Mayor. Three Democrats who used proxy voting frequently in 2022—Reps. Charlie Crist of Florida, Tom Suozzi of New York, and Kai Kahele of Hawaii—did so while running for governor of their respective states. The Honolulu Civil Beat reported earlier this year that proxy voting allowed Kahele to avoid Washington for months as he not only campaigned, but worked as a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines.

In a nonelection year, fewer lawmakers are likely to skip votes for their own campaigns. But many members of the House have assigned proxies for other kinds of politicking, like a Trump rally at the border, a home-state appearance with President Biden, and a risky trip to Afghanistan in the midst of the U.S.-withdrawal.

Without proxy voting as an option, absences of any sort could shackle McCarthy’s management of the House. Despite a narrow, ten-member majority in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been able to control her caucus in part because members who couldn’t make it to Washington could still vote. Next month, with a similarly-sized Republican majority, McCarthy will have little room to maneuver.

“If members are across the street raising money, that means he doesn’t have a functional quorum in the chamber,” says Daniel Schuman, the policy director of Demand Progress, which advocates for progressive causes and government modernization. “Whoops.”

Schuman, like other congressional experts and many members of the House, thinks proxy voting was a necessary tool, but far from a perfect solution. They see a need for a better system—perhaps one that would allow lawmakers to vote remotely in some cases, as they do in some other countries—in case Congress needs to rein in a president during August recess or a terrorist attack destroys the Capitol.

They’re even considering the ways institutional norms have failed to account for more mundane roadblocks, like those faced by the lawmaker who has to care for a sleeping baby during a late night vote or the West Coast member who sacrifices sleep to catch a red-eye to Washington to weigh in on a single bill.

“There is a lot to be said for work-life balance,” Schuman says. “A lot of these votes on the floor are stupid. Voting to rename a post office is stupid. … The way they set their schedule on the floor is dumb. They make people spend 10 hours flying in to vote on stupid crap. There’s a balance that needs to be struck here.”

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