Long-Distance Legislating

Good morning. Both chambers of Congress are out this week. (Alas, my editor didn’t think my Congress-is-out-maybe-I-should-be-out-too pitch yesterday was particularly compelling. [Editor’s Note: Staking our productivity to that of Congress seems awfully bad for business.]) 

Speaking of Phoning It In

For nearly two years, House lawmakers have been able to cast votes by proxy, an emergency pandemic response that allowed members to participate in proceedings remotely for the first time in the chamber’s history. It has been controversial from the start: GOP leaders launched what was ultimately an unsuccessful legal challenge, with critics today arguing the practice undermines the work of legislating and further empowers House leaders.

The debate is about to get even more heated, with one of the most egregious examples yet of a lawmaker using the proxy voting procedures for the sake of convenience.

On Monday, Nick Grube at Honolulu Civil Beat reported that Rep. Kai Kahele, who was elected in 2020 to fill former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s seat, has cast just five votes in person in 2022, all during the same work week in January. Kahele’s extended absence comes as he is publicly considering a gubernatorial bid. Here’s more from Grube’s story:

So far in 2022, Kahele has only cast five votes in person, all of them over the course of three days in January.

His remaining 120 votes — including one on April 2 to decriminalize marijuana that he boasted about in a press release including photos of him at a Big Island dispensary — were cast via proxy, meaning he had asked a fellow member to vote on his behalf on the House floor while he stayed home in the islands.

Since the beginning of the year, House voting records show Kahele voted by proxy more than all but three of his 429 colleagues.

By comparison, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who represents Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, has yet to ask someone to vote for him in 2022 and has only done so 30 times since 2020.

Prior to December, Kahele only voted by proxy 49 times, with most of those coming in March 2021 when Hawaii suffered historic flooding.

Despite skipping House work while citing the pandemic, Kahele has appeared at public events, press conferences, and meetings with local officials throughout the year. His office did not answer Grube’s requests for information about his absence from Washington.

Needless to say, Kahele’s use of proxy voting isn’t what it was intended for. 

It isn’t the first time a lawmaker has used the system for unrelated activities. Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist voted by proxy in Mary 2020 when he planned to attend a space launch (which ended up being delayed). In 2021, a dozen Republican lawmakers voted by proxy when they left the House early for the week to speak at CPAC. Others have voted by proxy while they were out of town attending fundraisers. Some cases have been more sympathetic: Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, voted by proxy when he was stuck at home after a tenuous eye surgery. Others have voted by proxy after the birth of a child. And the late Rep. Alcee Hastings voted by proxy as his health deteriorated before his death last year.

Regardless of the individual reason behind a given member’s absence, these uses of proxy voting all rely on form letters citing the pandemic as the justification. Proxy voting is still set up as an emergency alternative. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi renews the special rules that allow it every 45 days. And it continues to have value in times of outbreak: In the past week, at least 17 members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus. With proxy voting, lawmakers have been able to weigh in on legislation and attend hearings even when sick. (Molly Reynolds at the Brookings Institution has written on the impacts of proxy voting; it’s worth reading her report on the first year of its use in the House.)

House leaders haven’t closely policed members’ uses of proxy voting, and there aren’t clear repercussions when it is abused. A spokesman for Pelosi did not respond to a request for comment about Kahele’s use of proxy voting Tuesday morning. With effective vaccines and a broader opening of the Capitol campus in recent weeks, lawmakers are thinking about how to move forward. Kahele’s case could accelerate those conversations. 

Members had a hearing on proxy voting last month—all five hours of it were exhilarating, of course—during which they argued for and against remote procedures. 

Rep. Jim McGovern, who chairs the Rules Committee, made the case that proxy voting and remote committee hearings have saved lives. He noted the value of expanding the pool of committee hearing witnesses to people all over the world, who now simply need a computer and internet access to testify before Congress.

Along with proxy voting, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer touted other pandemic-related changes, including the chamber’s new digital filing system for legislation and online gathering of lawmaker signatures, rather than sending staff from door to door to collect support for a given bill. 

“The world has changed,” said Hoyer. “Technology is extraordinary. And every business in America, every enterprise in America, is utilizing technology to its benefit.”

Republicans pushed for clarity on how long the remote procedures will last. Good legislating, they said, requires genuine face-to-face debate and strong relationships among members. 

“The state of Congress is not better today than it was two years ago,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee. “That is undeniable. Governing is built on trust and relationships. Proxy voting and remote proceedings haven’t only broken down the communication between Democrats and Republicans, they have done so within the parties, within state delegations, and within committees as well.”

During the same hearing, Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar suggested moving to an allotted number of proxy voting days for lawmakers, a kind of equivalent to sick days or paid leave. 

“I think we can approach this in a practical way,” Escobar said. “We should allow Congress to operate in the same way that most other organizations operate.”

That system would give members more flexibility to spend time in their districts or with their families outside of previously scheduled district work weeks. It could also impose more oversight over members like Kahele, preventing them from skipping work for months on end.

Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, emphasized the need to strike some kind of balance. He said Tuesday that he is a strong proponent of members’ district time, but Kahele’s record is “a clear case where proxy voting has enabled dereliction.”

Yuval Levin, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has extensively studied how to make Congress function better, told The Dispatch he believes Congress should have proxy voting available as an emergency measure for situations like pandemics or other national security crises, but it should not be an option during normal times. 

“If the House starts to embrace proxy voting as a matter of course, it will inevitably become less of a face-to-face institution, and fall even further under the control of party leaders,” said Levin. “Proxy voting cheapens the work of legislating—of which voting is only one part—and makes it harder for the Congress to function as a venue for compromise and accommodation.” 

Of Note

Kai Kahele is still a pilot on “occasional flights” for Hawaiian Airlines while a member of Congress

Congress aims for next step to safeguard critical infrastructure

Congress comes off the sidelines on Ukraine. Will it stay on the field?

Gosar, far-right incumbent, faces GOP challengers in Arizona

Comments (70)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More