How The Absence Of Remote Voting Saps Individual Members Of Power

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) objected to the idea of instituting remote voting for members of Congress in a letter on Wednesday, citing a report assembled by his staff challenging the idea’s constitutionality, practicality and vulnerability to security breaches.

The decision came as a response to appeals from a group of nearly 70 House Democrats, many of them on the West Coast, seeking a temporary way to enable normal legislating while the COVID-19 pandemic prevents people from traveling back and forth from Washington, D.C., to their home districts.

To critics though, some of the report’s professed concerns seem either contrived ― in the case of the questionable quality of some individual members’ access to high-speed internet ― or eminently resolvable ― in the cases of the cybersecurity of the system the members would be using and members’ varied comfort with video conferencing technology.

In addition, these critics point out that the opposition to remote voting, even on an emergency basis, deprives members of influence in the lawmaking process during a pandemic. In such a scenario, urgent legislation either requires “unanimous consent” ― approval by default ― or someone to stand against the grain, objecting to such a bill and requiring all colleagues to travel to the nation’s capital to vote on it in person.

The effort to pass the COVID-19 stimulus and bailout bill in the House based on unanimous consent, which can be done without members being present, is a case in point, according to these skeptics. 

“It’s a total power play” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), said a senior aide to a progressive House member.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a conservative libertarian lawmaker, registered an objection to unanimous consent. His announcement required legislators, including many over the age of 70, to return to Washington to vote on the bill. (Massie was ultimately overruled on technical grounds; the House rapidly approved the legislation by voice vote, preventing members from having their formal “yes” and “no” votes recorded.)

By the time Massie had registered his objection, though, Pelosi and her deputies had effectively narrowed the terms of the debate by failing to pass a relief bill of their own before sending members home to their districts earlier this month.

That meant that rather than reconcile a more progressive House bill with a more conservative Senate bill, everything had to be negotiated in the Senate bill where a Republican White House and a Republican Senate left Democrats outnumbered. 

Progressive House Democrats opposed to the bill’s corporate bailouts would end up having to choose between rubber-stamping in absentia an imperfect bill with some relief for households and small businesses — or else objecting to it, thus requiring their colleagues to make the dangerous trek back to Washington and jeopardizing passage of any relief bill at all.

It’s a dilemma that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in particular, lamented during a floor speech, though she ended up declining to object to a voice vote.

“Pelosi had a significant amount of power in negotiating this package because members weren’t here,” said a second senior aide to a progressive House member. “If you have remote voting and you actually have to whip your members rather than just being able to count on unanimous consent, it would definitely give more leverage to members.”

An aide to House Democratic leadership maintained to HuffPost that the objections to remote voting had nothing to do with consolidating power in the hands of party leaders.

The Constitution requires members of Congress to be “present” for a vote, raising the prospect that the courts could strike down virtual voting, according to the leadership aide. Members’ technological aptitude varies widely, the leadership aide noted, citing a conference call this week with the House Democratic Caucus in which one member was not aware they had failed to mute their phone line when they were not speaking.

Besides, the aide pointed out, McGovern’s report is more receptive to the possibility of voting by proxy ― through an in-person substitute ― rather than online. (But even passing such a change would require Congress to reconvene in person to adopt new rules, since Democratic leadership declined to pair a rule change with the relief bill vote on Friday.)

Daniel Schuman, a policy director for the progressive group Demand Progress, which favors allowing remote voting on an emergency, 30-day basis, authored a point-by-point critique of McGovern’s report.

Schuman takes McGovern’s team to task for envisioning worst-case scenarios for technological failure, such as the glitchy app used in the Iowa caucuses in February, without acknowledging the ease with which virtual teleconferencing has been adapted in multiple professional settings.

Schuman also maintains that voting by virtual teleconference is the method that most closely approximates in-person voting and thus is most likely to meet constitutional standards in court. And since the vote would be public, he questioned how a video conference vote could be hacked or sabotaged through cybercrime.

What’s more, regardless of party leaders’ intentions, Schuman and other proponents of remote voting see leadership’s stance as the latest step in a decadeslong trend of centralizing power in the hands of party leadership. 

Congressional leadership frequently uses control over members’ scheduled votes to exercise influence over those members, according to the senior aides. For example, important appropriations bills are often scheduled for votes right before major holidays, creating an incentive for lawmakers from the two warring parties to resolve their differences. 

For that reason, Schuman is specifically wary of Democratic leaders’ greater receptiveness to proxy voting. Barring proxy voters with extraordinary skill and attentiveness, such a system would likely deny individual members the flexibility to barter their votes and change them on the spur of the moment ― and thus contribute to the deterioration of individual members’ power, he argued.

“Proxy voting is one step closer to making members less relevant and moving us toward a party system,” Schuman said.

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