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The People’s House Can Show Up

May 18, 2020
Weekly Columns

While the coronavirus crisis has caused unthinkable disruptions and challenges nationwide, this is not the first time in history that Congress has navigated extraordinary circumstances and still preserved the longstanding traditions imagined by our Founding Fathers. Throughout numerous emergencies and disasters in our nation’s history, the American people have always been able to count on their elected representatives to be their voice. Indeed, even amid such crises as the Civil War and the 1918 influenza pandemic, members of Congress have still shown up and been physically present for their essential work in Washington.

To be clear, slowing and ultimately stopping a pandemic requires cooperation from us all in following precautions and guidance set forth by our health and government officials at any given point in time. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has kept large portions of the U.S. population at home to slow the spread of the disease, there are many Americans whose jobs have become critically important to us all. We are truly indebted to those who have gotten up each day, left their houses and gone out to fulfill several key roles.

Tremendous courage has indeed been on full display by those fighting on the front lines of this crisis. We see it in our doctors, nurses and health care workers, who are risking their own lives every day to treat COVID-19 patients. We see it in those transporting essential supplies and making critical deliveries. We see it in our farmers and ranchers monitoring our food supply, along with workers in food processing facilities, meat packing plants and grocery stores, who are ensuring we have food to eat. We see it also in our military service members, who are still in the field protecting us at home and abroad.

If these Americans can take on the risk and serve selflessly throughout this crisis and if the White House can continue to go to work every day, so too should Congress. Although there are appropriate adjustments and precautions that should be taken to continue operations safely, both chambers of Congress are still capable of doing their essential work in person, as our forefathers certainly intended. In fact, the U.S. Senate has now returned three weeks in a row for legislative session.

Even though the U.S. House of Representatives has held floor votes at a safe social distance and even successfully adapted in-person hearings on many occasions, House Democrats recently decided to erase more than 230 years of constitutional precedent by pushing through a partisan plan to allow proxy voting and remote committee proceedings. While I understand that there are real concerns about continuing in-person operations amid a pandemic, I don’t think those concerns should fundamentally change how the House conducts official business, excusing members from their usual duties. Moreover, any effort to change centuries-old rules of the House should be clearly bipartisan – no matter how difficult that may be to achieve. I regret that was not the case with the Democrats’ partisan scheme pushed through last week with no Republican votes whatsoever.

After forming a bipartisan working group tasked with considering and arriving at changes to operations that would be acceptable on both sides of the aisle, it is particularly disappointing that Democrats abandoned those negotiations and charged on full speed ahead. As Ranking Member of the House Rules Committee, I was directly involved in those bipartisan discussions on behalf of Republicans, alongside Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Administration Committee Ranking Member Rodney Davis; in fact, while discussions were still ongoing, we proposed four strategies for reopening the People’s House that would not only enable lawmakers to safely and fully perform their key functions for the American people but also protect longstanding traditions and precedents of the institution.

Unfortunately, House Democrats opted to make history, but not for better and not in the best interest of the American people. Though they claim their plan to allow proxy voting and remote committee work is only temporary, it’s a risky move that isn’t constitutionally sound. Not to mention, even temporary solutions become the precedents we follow and can’t undo tomorrow. In the days ahead, I fear there will be severe consequences of allowing one single member to cast votes for up to 10 absent colleagues and shifting committee business to take place remotely – including challenges of validity in the courts sooner or later.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the very definition of “congress” is the “act or action of coming together and meeting.” While I appreciate that technology can keep us connected in many ways unimaginable to our forebearers, I don’t think that gives members free reign now to substitute precious traditions for selfish convenience or to abdicate the personal responsibility of casting an in-person vote to another. That is a grave disservice to constituents from every congressional district, who elected and entrusted their representatives to be their voice.