This week, with at least some members of Congress expected to be in Washington and a fourth phase of coronavirus relief legislation on the horizon, the House of Representatives needs to make remote voting a priority. This is not simply a public safety issue — as has been argued in the New York Times — it’s also about being able to wield Democratic power. Democrats are not, as Vox’s Ezra Klein recently asserted, “governing from the minority.” Rather, they are failing to govern even the House of Representatives, where they hold an ample majority.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has dragged her feet on the issue, using Congress’s lack of remote voting arrangements to shore up her influence over legislation and effectively shackle progressive members of the Democratic caucus. As long as it is impossible to meet in person, progressives in Congress are effectively powerless, and House Republicans, though the minority party, have veto power over the chamber’s legislation.
Instead of instituting rules allowing for the House to hold committee hearings and vote remotely when the House was last in session in March, Pelosi has spent the last two months running the House through “unanimous consent” procedures. This is exactly what it sounds like: A measure can be blocked if any present member offers objection. By doing so, she ceded substantial control to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
The House has historically been ruled by the majority with an iron fist. Democrats should be setting the terms of the debate by passing bold bills as a negotiating tactic. Just look at the CARES Act — the third phase of coronavirus relief that passed in March. Pelosi could and should have had the House approve a simple, popular, progressive relief package that, for example, offered even more generous unemployment benefits, canceled student debt, and paid everybody in the country $2,000 per month through the duration of the crisis and then dared the Senate not to pass it. She didn’t because under unanimous consent, anything more liberal than what the Senate passes will be blocked by Republicans.
Indeed, it just took one Republican, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, to block Pelosi’s attempt to rubber stamp the CARES Act using unanimous consent. Massie’s call for a recorded vote spurred House leadership to fall back on its next-best option for moving in a hurry under existing rules: Usher a bare majority of members back to Washington to try to achieve a quorum and pass the measure using an unrecorded “voice vote.” Since leadership of both parties had signed off on the $2.2 trillion corporate giveaway, it didn’t matter — and remains unclear — whether a majority of those voting were Republicans or Democrats.
That we lack a complete accounting of who was present at the vote for such a consequential and controversial piece of legislation is a travesty. Though his actions frustrated many of his House colleagues and invited the Twitter wrath of Donald Trump, Massie’s attempt to force a recorded vote was justified. Voters have a right to know where their representatives fell on the bill so they can hold them accountable, and the same goes for any major legislation moving forward. (The Intercept has conducted its own roll call of members’ positions on CARES.)
Until remote lawmaking is in place, progressives’ hands will be tied. The more progressive a hypothetical bill is, the more likely it is that Republicans will block passing it by unanimous consent. If there’s a push for a roll call vote, Republicans could kill the quorum — the requirement that a majority of members of the House be present — unless 216 of the 233 serving Democrats are in the chamber. (There are five vacancies in the House right now, meaning a quorum is lower than it would be were all 435 seats filled.) Meanwhile, as the crisis continues, the risk increases that representatives will be unable to travel to Washington.
As things stand, Democrats are unable to act as watchdogs. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve are managing a multitrillion-dollar crisis response under a cloak of darkness. The CARES Act includes weak oversight provisions, including the institution of an inspector general — whose work Trump intends to frustrate — and an oversight board without subpoena power. This problem is compounded by Pelosi’s appointment of Rep. Donna Shalala to be her designee on this board. The Florida Democrat has expressed a lack of interest in being aggressive and was found to have violated ethics rules by failing to disclose hundreds of financial transactions she has undertaken during her year or so in office. Meaningful oversight is more likely to be driven by House committees with relatively intrepid chairs, but only if Pelosi chooses to allow them to function remotely so that they can hold hearings, demand access to information, and even issue subpoenas.
The work that can be achieved in such settings can be profound. When the likely magnitude of the impact of the coronavirus was just becoming apparent in March, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., gained notoriety for extracting a pledge from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield that coronavirus testing costs would be covered even for the uninsured. If committees are not meeting, then this sort of exchange cannot take place.
According to research by Data For Progress, 67 percent of people polled supported remote voting and only 16 percent said the rules should not be changed (the rest were unsure). The public clearly wants Congress to keep working during the pandemic, and many legislators agree. In March, dozens of representatives signed various letters advocating for changes to House rules to allow remote meetings. “We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place,” one letter with over 50 signatures insisted. The Constitution, the authors pointed out, permits each House to “determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” The founders may not have explicitly endorsed virtual voting, but they also didn’t prohibit it.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Pelosi dismissed her colleague’s sensible calls for reform. “We’re not there yet, and we’re not going to be there no matter how many letters somebody sends in — with all the respect in the world for that,” she said. Under pressure from her peers and the public, spearheaded by advocacy groups like Demand Progress (of which David Segal, a co-author of this piece, is executive director), the speaker has since begun to change her tune, but because of her delay, she must navigate an increasingly complex situation. Fixing the rules requires the House to pass an amendment. If Pelosi tries to do this through unanimous consent, a Republican will block. This means she likely needs a majority vote, with a quorum present. That could happen this week, when the House comes back to consider Phase 4 coronavirus relief legislation — though many members are elderly, have underlying conditions, or are in self-quarantine, thus making it difficult to secure a quorum that Democrats control.
Activists and citizens pushing for a more robust response to the current crisis must take note. If we want better, more humane policies, congressional decision-making procedures must be fixed first.
We need a relief package that bails out regular people, puts stringent conditions on any public funds distributed to the corporate sector, and protects our electoral process by guaranteeing that all citizens can safely vote by mail in November. Progressive Democrats have leverage to fight for a just recovery, if only Pelosi will allow them to use it.
The pandemic has shown old rules need not apply. Even the stodgy Supreme Court, which doesn’t allow video recordings or real-time audio broadcasts of its proceedings, has begun to hear cases by teleconference. Congress recently made a change to allow members to introduce or co-sponsor legislation by email. Now, they must allow for remote voting and committee work. If millions of schoolchildren can learn to use Zoom overnight, Washington officials surely can too.