‘Like a letter carrier’: House takes historic plunge with first proxy votes

On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania quietly made some history.

Acting on behalf of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Boyle was the first member ever to cast a proxy vote for a colleague on the House floor. Boyle joked that he had to “thank the alphabet for this one” because the chamber was voting in alphabetical order, but he also insisted that the move would be praised by the Constitution’s drafters.

“Our Founding Fathers were some of the most forward-thinking people of their time,” Boyle said in an interview. “I have no doubt that if James Madison were here now, he would be embracing us for being able to use the technology of today so that we can carry out the will of the people.”

But his action — and the rule change that allowed it — has quickly become another bitter partisan flashpoint as Congress struggles with how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

And President Donald Trump may soon be forced to weigh in.

The bill that Boyle cast his proxy vote for Lofgren on is a hugely popular measure calling for the United States to sanction Chinese officials and entities over the detention and torture of Uyghur Muslims in that country’s Xinjiang region. If Trump signs the measure — which passed the House by an overwhelming 413-1 margin after being approved by the Senate on a voice vote — it means the president has indirectly endorsed a procedure that Republicans claim is unconstitutional.

Trump hasn’t said whether he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk, and the Chinese government is already threatening to retaliate if sanctions are enacted.

Under pressure from their own members to allow for more remote work during the pandemic, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) pushed through the proxy vote rules change earlier this month.

House impeachment manager Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, after the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump concluded for the day. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The move, which came on a party line vote, was vehemently opposed by House Republicans, who charge it violates the constitutional requirement for a majority to be present to hold a House vote. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other top Republicans have already said they’ll sue in federal court to overturn the rule, but that didn’t stop the Democrats from going ahead with the procedure Wednesday.

“In California alone, your largest [Democratic] delegation, more than half the Democrats stayed home,” McCarthy complained on the floor before the vote on the Uyghur bill. “I’ll guarantee you that they all cashed their check this month.”

Added Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), “We got through yellow fever, we got through world wars, we got through the Spanish flu, we got through a civil war, and we managed to figure out how to do our job.”

Seventy members — all of them Democrats — filed public letters with the House Clerk’s office stating that they would not be physically present “due to the ongoing public health emergency” and had assigned their proxy to a colleague. These members had to inform that colleague how they wanted to vote on every amendment, bill or procedural question.

Many of those who filed proxy votes were from the western United States and have travel challenges even getting to Capitol Hill. Twenty-six Californians filed such notices, for instance.

Others have been suffering from major health problems and are more vulnerable to the coronavirus; Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), have been undergoing cancer treatments, while Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) was hospitalized for pneumonia.

Some were some freshmen from battleground districts, while some committee chairs, such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), decided to use the procedure as well.

But all Democrats strongly rejected the GOP claim that the process was unconstitutional or a violation of their duties as a lawmaker.

“I have zero discretion and I have zero judgment. I am like a letter carrier delivering a letter to the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin who was accused by McCarthy of having “voted seven times on legislation” because the Maryland Democrat cast six proxy votes in addition to his own.

“I’ve been listening carefully to the debate all day,” added Raskin, a constitutional lawyer. “I’ve not heard a single argument about how this disadvantages the minority and advantages the majority.”

Forty-one Democrats served as proxies on Wednesday, representing nearly every swath of the country. Two local lawmakers — Raskin and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) — cast the most proxy votes, doing so on behalf of roughly a half-dozen colleagues a piece.

One Democrat showed a reporter a proxy list that included a GOP colleague who had asked him to cast a vote, but the Republican later backed out, apparently out of concern that the move could undermine the looming legal action or disrupt party unity. The Republican didn’t show up for Wednesday’s House votes.

Many members tapped a colleague who shared the same ideological tilt to cast their proxy votes: progressives chose progressives, Blue Dogs chose Blue Dogs. Others chose within their state delegation, or picked their D.C. roommates, who are usually some of their closest friends in Congress.

The list includes lawmakers across the political spectrum, from Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a senior conservative Democrat, to Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a firebrand progressive.

It allowed Democrats like Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) — who have been sidelined from the U.S. Capitol for health reasons — to record their vote for the first time in weeks. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) was able to vote while quarantining herself after potential exposure to the virus.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) cast proxy votes for five of his colleagues on the floor, including two of his roommates in a D.C. townhouse: Reps. Mike Levin and Jared Huffman, both of California.

Kildee said all four Democrats emailed him with specific instructions, and then he called them to confirm — even for a non-controversial “suspension” vote where all but one House member voted the same way.

“We’ve got to do it right,” Kildee said. “I think it’s unfortunate the way some have characterized all this. This is just us proving that just like the rest of the world, we can figure out how to adapt.”

Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) said she is on a group text chain with several other Democrats — some of whom also live in the same apartment near the Capitol — and volunteered to serve as a proxy for anybody who needed one. She eventually voted for four other Democrats.

“I just offered,” Kuster said. “They have various reasons regarding their health, or their family members.”

Each member voting on behalf of their colleague was required to take several additional steps on the floor — reading aloud each colleague’s position, then waiting for the clerk to repeat it for the record. For each proxy vote, Democrats lined up behind each other in the aisle as they waited to approach the mic.

Several members filed for proxy votes but then showed up anyway. Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Cedric Richmond (D-La.) both did so, for instance.

“The question was about not whether I was coming but whether I could get in in time for the first vote,” Richmond said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

In the end, Democrats seemed comfortable with their rule change and how the process played out on the first day, despite the Republican complaints.

“I find Leader McCarthy’s position to just be irresponsible. I also see it as obstructionist,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.). “The Supreme Court would be awfully hypocritical to intervene based on some very strange reading of the Constitution.”

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A feud over face masks and pandemic relief: Congress returns

For the first time in nearly a month, House members returned to a largely deserted Capitol Hill. Congress — like the entire country — seemed changed forever. Or maybe not.

They came by plane, train and automobile, with some lawmakers driving for days to get back to Washington to vote on a $484 billion coronavirus relief bill. They fought, as usual, about everything. Who was to blame for the two-week delay in passing the latest aid package? Why wasn’t Speaker Nancy Pelosi bringing them back into regular session immediately? Why hasn’t President Donald Trump done better on testing and PPE?

There was even a partisan split over face masks.

A group of at least a dozen House Republicans pointedly didn't wear masks during the House vote, even while hundreds of their colleagues — and all but seemingly one Democrat — were doing so. Their excuses for abstaining were flimsy. “I didn’t want to take one from someone who needed it,” or “I left mine in my office” were offered, if they didn’t run away from the question posed by reporters. The culture war happening throughout the United States over the coronavirus was also playing out on the House floor.

And like the rest of America, lawmakers grieved for friends and family members who were suffering from a disease that’s already killed more than 45,000 of their fellow citizens. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) announced that her sister was “dying in a hospital in St. Louis, Mo., right now, infected by the coronavirus.” Waters dedicated the bill to her. Other members held up photos of dead constituents, openly weeping on the floor for the victims.

“Yes, I know a number of people who have died, unfortunately,” added Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, whose New York City district covers parts of hard-hit Manhattan and Brooklyn. “We’re still having a large number of deaths, although thankfully that’s been going down because we’re practicing social distancing. We’ve closed the place down basically, and it will have to continue for a while.”

Getting to Washington wasn’t easy for some. GOP Rep. Mike Simpson made the 33-hour drive from Idaho Falls, Idaho starting before dawn on Monday morning. Simpson arrived late Tuesday night — stopping only to sleep and stretch his legs. Rep. Billy Long drove back with fellow Missouri Republican Jason Smith. When asked how it was, the former auctioneer only said, “Long.”

With air traffic severely curtailed, some lawmakers found themselves with unusual travel companions. Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan said her flight included not just members of her state delegation but lawmakers from Utah — whose direct flight to D.C. had been canceled.

Members were also worried about getting home with fewer flight options. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said the next flight home was 3 p.m. Friday, while fellow Democrat Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico said direct flights back to his home state have been canceled.

GOP Rep. Richard Hudson took a different tack. He simply never went back to North Carolina after Congress adjourned on March 27, remaining in D.C. with his family instead.

“I’ve been here, never left,” Hudson said. “I’ve been in the office every day and working.”

Once they did get to the Hill on Thursday, most members huddled in their offices as instructed by leadership, although a half dozen sneaked into the empty Visitors’ Gallery to watch the floor debate, despite being asked not to do so.

Others roamed through the House buildings alone, taking direction from masked floor staff without their usual entourage of aides. There were no clusters of close-knit colleagues sitting together on the floor or slapping each other on the back. The House’s basement cafe, a favorite for lawmakers on the go, was mostly deserted, offering just a bare-bones menu.

"Politicians are extreme extroverts and suddenly you can't go out and press the flesh," Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said, noting the inability of members to comfort each other amid the crisis. "That's tough."

Raskin said conversations that may normally have happened in hallways or caucus meetings have moved to text or Zoom. Raskin joked that all Democrats have become tech masters except Majority Leader Steny Hoyer “whose middle name is ‘Oops I forgot to mute myself.’”

April 23, 2020. US Capitol, Washington, DC. House leader Steny Hoyer adjusts his mask during signing ceremony in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol for newly-passed COVID-19 legislation. Photo by David Butow

Members also understood the extraordinary circumstances they were living through. Much of the country remains on involuntary lockdown, with more than 26 million Americans out of work and tens of thousands of companies shuttered, many permanently. Members desperately want to do something, anything, to respond to the barrage of desperate calls coming into their congressional offices, but also recognize they are potentially endangering each other just by being in the same building together.

“Ever since I’ve come to Congress, it’s always been bizarre situations,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.). “As a freshman, it was the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Then it was 9/11 [attacks] in 2001. Then, of course, the second impeachment, and all the things in between. And now this. This is just sort of par for the course.”

Special care was taken to shield lawmakers from catching or spreading the coronavirus. When it came time to vote, members cycled through the floor alphabetically in groups of 50 to 60 rather than swarm the chamber all at once like usual. The process dragged out for more than an hour during each of two votes.

As they entered the House chamber, there were also stations that held masks, gloves and giant bottles of hand sanitizer. Members were advised to employ social distancing — “Please stand at least six feet apart” read signs all over the floor.

When it was Rep. Henry Cuellar's turn to vote, the senior Texas Democrat turned to the small group of staff and colleagues and shouted: "I miss y'all!"

Cuellar, who is quick to chat up other members or reporters in hallways, held up his hands and offered a pretend embrace. "Hugs, hugs, hugs!" Cuellar said loudly from the floor as he exited.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi herself — clad in blue latex gloves and with a white scarf over her face — stood in the back of the chamber to serve as impromptu traffic cop as members meandered slowly. The first vote took 87 minutes, and Pelosi was pleased by the process.

“Fabulously, it went fabulously,” the speaker gushed as she left the chamber.

Then the House was closed for 10 minutes between votes so Capitol employees could speed-clean every surface in the chamber. The dozen-plus House employees were supposed to do the job in 30 minutes, but they frantically called out the time to one another as they worked and finished in a fraction of the allotted period. Reporters watching them applauded the effort.

Members also accomplished some work of their own. On a party-line vote, the House created a new select oversight committee — to be chaired by Majority Whip Jim Clyburn — on the coronavirus relief effort. The panel is “charged with ensuring the efficient, effective and equitable allocation of the trillions of dollars in taxpayer funds” approved by Congress, Clyburn said in a statement.

Clyburn, though, couldn’t say exactly when his panel was going to start meeting or who would be on it. “I have no idea. I suspect I will be talking to the speaker over the weekend,” Clyburn said after the vote.

The House then passed the $484 billion rescue bill on an overwhelming vote of 388-5 that masked the partisan recriminations underlying the effort.

As part of that aid package — the fourth approved by Congress since the crisis began — $381 billion is for small businesses, $75 billion is going to hospitals, and $25 billion will be spent to ramp up what Democrats complain is “woeful” national testing efforts.

Democrats noted that the White House had originally only asked for $250 billion for small businesses, and argued their efforts made an incomplete bill far better.

“The bill that passed today could have passed two weeks ago,” Hoyer said, if not for Republican resistance to Democratic priorities. “It’s a shame that it took a couple of weeks to get there.”

Republicans countered that the delay hurt thousands of small business that were unable to get loans because the Small Business Administration loan program ran out of money.

“This bill is 16 days too late. We could have agreed to this in 16 minutes,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas), the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.

The House is not formally scheduled to meet in full session until May 5, yet even that is a source of disagreement.

Democrats had initially planned on authorizing some limited proxy voting on the floor this week, which would allow some lawmakers to vote remotely during the pandemic. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other Republicans had bitterly opposed the plan, and Democrats held off on pushing a change in the rules.

On Wednesday, Hoyer and McCarthy met for over an hour in the Capitol basement to discuss proxy voting as well as the prospect of holding hearings remotely. They failed to reach any kind of consensus, with Republicans objecting to whatever the Democrats proposed, while also beating up Democrats for not wanting to work, according to sources who attended the meeting.

“We had a discussion about a lot of different options. We'll continue to discuss those,” Hoyer said leaving the meeting, which perfectly sums up everything about Congress right now.

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