As with other businesses that have seen shutdowns and employees working from home, Congress has adapted to the new “socially distanced” workplace. In this Deep Dive, Votespotter looks at some of the ways the coronavirus epidemic has changed the way Congress, and especially the House of Representatives, works.
One of the first effects of the coronavirus pandemic was to disrupt the normal business calendar of Congress. At the beginning of the year, both House and Senate leadership decide on a calendar that lays out the days when each body will be in session. Once the extent of the coronavirus began coming into focus in early March, however, House leadership decided to alter their calendar. The Senate’s calendar largely remained intact.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi canceled many weeks of House sessions. She then called the House back into session periodically to consider legislation the Democratic leadership deemed important, including coronavirus relief bills and legislation to provide further aid to the U.S. Postal Service. The House has not met for significant periods of time during the pandemic, however, and only has 5 full weeks of session scheduled for the rest of the year.
As discussed in a previous Deep Dive, the House of Representatives has approved proxy voting for members who do not want to come to Washington, D.C. during the coronavirus pandemic. On May 15, the House voted 217-189 in favor of House Resolution 965. Under this rule change, a member can designate another member who will be physically present in the House chamber. That member can then cast a vote on behalf of the absent member, but only if the absent member has authorized such a vote in writing.
While the House has previously allowed proxy voting in committee, which the Senate currently does, neither chamber has allowed proxy votes to be cast on actual bills considered by the entire body. Speaker Pelosi steered this rule change through the House earlier this year, contending that it permits the House to continue operating while members have concerns about the coronavirus. She argues that the proxy voting procedures put in place earlier this year ensure that the will of the member casting such a vote is protected.
House Republicans disagree, however. They voted against this rule change and have also filed a lawsuit to stop it, arguing that it violates the Constitution. The Republican members also contend that this procedure concentrates power of the House majority’s leaders because it means there will be fewer House members present for deliberations and votes.
Under the rule change, proxy voting may continue as long as the Speaker declares a public health emergency related to the coronavirus. The declaration remains in effect for 45 days, but the Speaker can renew it.
House Resolution 965 also allowed committees to meet remotely, using technology to allow members to question witnesses and take votes. However, closed executive sessions of committees must still take place in person.
Both the House and Senate have altered some procedures to incorporate social distancing and other precautions aimed at combating the coronavirus. Outside visitors to congressional offices are limited, and these offices no longer conduct Capitol tours. The Senate, with fewer members than the House, has made suggestions to its members about social distancing and testing. The House, however, has implemented mandatory procedures aimed at keeping members separate from one another.
Members of the House who are present in Washington, D.C., face a number of new requirements for their time in the Capitol complex. Only those members actively involved in congressional debate can be in the House chamber when the debate is occurring; otherwise members must remain in their offices or can sit in the House gallery (which is now closed to the general public). Votes are held for longer periods of time, with members entering the chambers in staggered groups to limit the number of individuals in the chamber at one time. Face coverings are required for access to the House floor and in committee meetings.
Effects on Transparency
Except for members of Congress, most of this will have little direct effect on you. The changes do affect the public indirectly, however. With the House reducing the number of days it is in session, and lengthening roll call vote times, there is less time to consider legislation. These time constraints, coupled with the absence of members from the Capitol due to the availability of proxy voting, means there are also fewer opportunities for members to debate legislation.
This session of Congress will likely produce fewer new laws than in past sessions because of how coronavirus-related procedures have limited the congressional calendar and mandated lengthier voting times. With Congress operating in a different manner than in the past, some of its actions may be less visible to the public. VoteSpotter is working to inform you of the votes taken by your representatives in Congress and the issues they are considering, then allow you to give feedback on what your representatives in Washington, D.C., are doing.
Visiting Washington, D.C.
If you are planning to visit Washington, D.C., and the Capitol, these changes in congressional operations will affect you. Visitors can no longer observe the House and the Senate sessions in person from their visitors’ galleries. Tours of the Capitol are also canceled. In fact, access to congressional buildings is highly restricted, with many staff working from home. Visitors to congressional offices are only permitted with an escort from an employee of the House of Representatives or Senate.