The Floor of the U.S. House of Representatives used to be one of the liveliest places in town. Members could casually gather there during votes and exchange stories of home, discuss legislative strategy, plan committee activities or compare social media feeds. It was also a rare place where lawmakers of different parties could talk about what they have in common or hash out differences.
But thanks to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s drive to accumulate even more power, the House Floor is a dark, lonely place. While retail stores, restaurants, and other businesses severely affected by government lockdowns are trying to kickstart a financial comeback by opening their doors, Pelosi is keeping the House locked. Instead of relaxing the rules put in place during the pandemic – many of which made sense – she’s doubling down by extending proxy voting, which discourages the very thing that lawmakers must do: gather in-person and vote. The Democrats’ proxy voting scheme will now be in effect until mid-August.
With the rest of the country opened up as more and more people are vaccinated, the continued lockdown of Congress raises important questions: Is it about the science or is it about the Speaker’s power? As each day passes and she refuses to allow Members to gather in-person, the answer becomes increasingly clear.
Since May 2020, the House has allowed proxy voting, a practice where one Member authorizes a colleague to vote on their behalf and instructs the colleague which way to vote. Prior to May 2020, the House never authorized proxy voting on the Floor, a constitutionally questionable action to start with. The resolution that provided for proxy voting authorized the Speaker to allow the practice for a specified period when the Sergeant-at-Arms declared that the country faced a public health emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s been more than a year since the Democrats’ proxy voting scheme began, and it doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. Pelosi recently announced that it will continue until August 17. Anyone putting odds on another extension?
Conducting business in-person is integral to the work Congress does. Meeting with constituents, speaking with staff about legislation, scurrying from one committee hearing to another: These are all activities that Members of Congress engaged in in-person prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now with upwards of 80 percent of Members and staff vaccinated, many offices are returning to in-person work, whether that’s going into the office, setting up constituent meetings, or setting up a robust schedule of in-district activities now that the country is opening back up.
Indeed, we’re seeing all across America people striving to return to some sense of normalcy after more than a year of social isolation. Youth sports leagues are giving children a very needed chance to play and compete with their peers. Community pools are advertising for lifeguards and camps are looking for counselors so they can open for summer fun. Restaurants, coffee shops, retail and grocery stores – they’re all opening their doors and welcoming back customers with signs letting people know that those who are fully vaccinated need not even wear a mask to enter.
The very word “congress” means “the act or action of coming together.” Congress thrives when Members and staff have strong bonds with each other. Conversely, when Members are unable or unwilling to work with each other, whether it is within a party or across the aisle, legislative muscles atrophy and the institution suffers. Over the last year, the pandemic and politics have strained already-poor relationships within Congress. Continuing proxy voting exacerbates the tensions among Members, further limiting the House’s effectiveness. Though today’s polarization and acrimonious partisanship have many causes, prohibiting proxy voting is an important part of the solution.
If proxy voting persists, Members should resist any efforts to continue it. Proxy voting cannot be allowed to contribute to the further diminution of the House’s strength. Instead, the House’s priority should be to repair the relationships that have been damaged over the last year. To do this, much like the rest of society, the House needs to return the best of its pre-pandemic practices. End proxy voting immediately.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.