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Virus Outbreak: US representatives allow proxy voting amid crisis

It all started with the grandchildren.

As US House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saw it, if he could FaceTime with the grandkids, why not have the US Congress legislate by video chat and avoid the health risks of convening at the Capitol during the COVID-19 pandemic?

So the silver-haired, 80-year-old congressman from Maryland helped steer the House into one of the more substantial rules changes of its 230-year history.

Photo: Reuters

“This is no revolutionary, radical change,” Hoyer told reporters. “This is exactly what the founders wanted to happen.”

The House on Friday approved the new rules, during what could likely be the chamber’s last fully in-person vote for the foreseeable future.

Lawmakers would now be allowed to cast House floor votes by proxy — without being “present” as the constitution requires.

The next step would allow them to skip the middleman and simply vote remotely once leaders approve the technology.

Debate over the changes has been fierce. As US President Donald Trump encourages Americans to return to work, Democrats pushed the changes past the objections of Republicans.

Like the rest of the country, lawmakers are weighing risks and responsibilities. Since the pandemic shuttered Capitol Hill in March, the 435-member House has largely stayed away while the smaller US Senate resumed operations.

Several lawmakers and dozens of staff in the sprawling complex have tested positive as the novel coronavirus hits close.

Democrats have said that the House can rely on technology for remote work as the pandemic drags on, but Republicans objected to what they see as a power grab during the crisis.

Under the new rules, House lawmakers would no longer be required to travel to Washington to participate in floor votes. Some will, but others can assign their vote to another lawmaker who would be at the Capitol to cast it for them. A single lawmaker can carry 10 proxy votes to the chamber.

Just as important, the House committees — the bread and butter of legislative work — would be able to fully function remotely. Committee hearings are prime time for lawmakers — the chance to grill officials, spar with colleagues and have much of it captured on C-SPAN.

House lawmakers would be able to draft bills, conduct oversight and even issue subpoenas from the comfort of their homes.

The changes are expected to be temporary, only through the remainder of this session of Congress, at the end of the year. Democrats insist the changes should be used only in times of crisis.

However, Republicans said that there would be legal challenges to legislation passed during this period, questioning the constitutional legitimacy of proxy votes.

“You’ve got to be here,” said Representative Jim Jordan, a Trump supporter. “You can’t phone it in.”

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