The Room Where it Sort of Happens

Since I last mused about the issue of remote voting, the House floated, and then dropped, this proposal to allow both remote voting by proxy and remote committee proceedings during a “pandemic emergency.” Among other things, the resolution would have authorized a member to submit to the Clerk a signed letter specifying another member to act as her proxy. This would allow the proxyholder to cast the member’s vote and to record her presence for purposes of a quorum call, provided that the proxyholder obtain the member’s “exact instruction” prior to casting the vote or recording her presence.

The proxy voting procedure raises a number of questions and concerns. Would a large group or majority of members be able to give their proxies to a single leader  or other member? How “exact” do exact instructions need to be? Could the instructions give the proxyholder discretion as to how to vote? Could they direct the proxyholder to vote in accordance with the directions of the speaker or the minority leader? Could they direct the proxyholder how to vote on a bill that had not yet been finalized?

That the drafters of the resolution had some of these same questions is suggested by section 6, which states that “[t]o the greatest extent practicable, sections 1, 2, and 3 of this resolution shall be carried out in accordance with regulations submitted for printing in the Congressional Record by the chair of the Committee on Rules.” However, giving the committee (or the chair alone?) the power to make decisions regarding the very essence of the legislative process is not reassuring and, to coin a phrase, could be a cure worse than the disease. And the qualification “to the greatest extent practicable,” which implies that under some undefined circumstances the hypothetical regulations could be disregarded, adds to the impression of a half baked concept.

Presumably the House resolution was premised on the idea that proxy voting is less of a constitutional/institutional innovation than “pure” remote voting. However, although proxy voting has been traditionally used in committee proceedings, proxy voting has never been permitted in floor proceedings, nor in particular for votes on final passage of legislation or other measures. See William McKay & Charles W. Johnson, Parliament & Congress 212 (2010) (“Proxy voting has never been permitted in either House, and becomes an ethics issue when a Member’s votes is cast in his absence.”).

Even in committees, the idea of proxy voting is not uncontroversial, which is why it has been banned in the House (though not the Senate) since 1995. See id. Jefferson’s Manual describes the rule of Parliament that “[a] committee meet when and where they please, if the House has not ordered time and place for them; but they can only act when together , and not by separate consultation and consent– nothing being the report of the committee but what has been agreed to in committee actually assembled.” House Rules and Manual § 407 (citation omitted). Thus, there is a difference between collective deliberation and agreement on a matter and mere “separate consultation and consent” reflected by proxy voting.

To be clear, the constitutional quorum requirement does not apply to the work of committees (or for that matter to other legislative work that is short of final action by the full legislative body). Nor is there any constitutional obligation that committees conduct their business at the seat of government or in any particular location. As far as I can see, the question whether committees should operate remotely, e.g., by conducting meetings or hearings by videoconference, is  a matter of institutional policy, not constitutional law.

Nonetheless, the idea that legislative action requires more than “separate consultation and consent” is arguably embedded in the constitutional provisions that apply to the full legislative body. These include not only the quorum clause, but the mandate that Congress “assemble” for its annual meeting, and the restriction on either house unilaterally adjourning to “any other place” during the session. For reasons noted by Tim LaPira and James Wallner, constitutional text, historical practice, and the nature of the legislative process itself argue in favor of the physical, not merely virtual, assembly of both houses for the congressional session. And as Wallner observed in this podcast, the framers were aware of the possibility of legislative action by physically remote actors (such as the use of circular letters by committees of correspondence), but did not provide for Congress to act in such a manner. (By contrast, the constitutional amendment process involves what Professor Paulsen has called “concurrent legislation” by geographically dispersed legislative bodies).

This does not necessarily mean, however, that a majority of either house must be physically present in the same room at the same time in order to satisfy constitutional quorum requirements. While physical presence has always been the touchstone of determining a quorum in both houses, it seems to have been flexibly applied to ensure that members are present in the general vicinity of the chamber at roughly contemporaneous times. Thus, members traditionally can be counted toward a quorum even while outside the chamber or if they depart after voting or being counted. See, e.g., 5 Deschler’s Precedents ch. 20 § 3 (“In practice, the Speaker counts all Members he can see, including those leaving the chamber and those behind the railing.”); see also id. § 3.19 (in Senate, chair may use the last roll call as the basis for finding a quorum).

In modern practice, House votes are generally conducted by electronic voting that is conducted over a minimum period of 15 minutes during which members drift in and out. The chair has the discretion to hold the vote open for far longer if need be to allow absent members to make it to the floor. See Hearing Before the House Select Comm. to Investigate the Voting Irregularities of Aug. 2, 2007 at 17 (Oct. 25, 2007) (testimony of former House parliamentarian Charles Johnson) (“Through the early nineties, votes were held open interminably because Members could signal through the cloakrooms that they were on their way and the Chair– a tradition grew that the Chair would honor Members who had asked that the vote be held open and the business of the House was to be impacted adversely.”). The process followed by the House in voting on April 23, 2020, in which there was staggered voting by different groups of members in order to maintain social distancing, further illustrates the absence of any requirement under House rules or practice that a quorum be physically present in the chamber at any one time.

Particularly in light of this historical practice, it seems difficult to contend that the Constitution requires a majority of members to vote in the same room at the same time, and therefore no reason they should be prohibited from voting from locations outside the legislative chamber itself. On the other hand, as I suggested in my prior post, this proposition does not mean that the constitutional requirements have no physical component at all. Absent some degree of proximity among its members, the legislative body arguably is not assembled in a constitutional sense, is not sitting at the same place as the other chamber, and lacks a sufficient number of members in attendance to constitute a quorum. Furthermore, if members are simply voting remotely without the opportunity for collective discussion, debate and negotiation, this is not a mere technical problem, but potentially undermines the deliberative nature of the institution.

A measure introduced in the Senate by Senators Portman and Durbin, S. Res. 548, would allow senators “to cast their votes from outside of the Senate Chamber” during “an extraordinary crisis of national extent.” Like the House resolution, this proposal is not a “pure” remote voting process in that the Senate would still conduct a proceeding in the Senate chamber (though presumably there could be as few as one senator physically present, as in a pro forma session). Unlike the House proposal, however, senators would cast their own remote votes, which avoids some of the practical and potential constitutional problems with proxy voting suggested earlier.

To the extent that a majority of senators are casting their votes from remote locations within the seat of government, it seems to me that S. Res. 548 would very likely pass constitutional muster. The Senate would be assembled for constitutional purposes, the senators would be present at the seat of government, and they would retain the same ability to conduct collaborative legislative activities as during ordinary congressional sessions. To the extent that the need for social distancing inhibits such activities, this would not be result of the remote voting procedure.

Even if there were not a majority of senators present at the seat of government, it is probably unlikely the process could be successfully challenged in court. As suggested by this CRS report, a court might decline to reach the merits of the case under the the enrolled bill rule or other justiciability principles and, even it did reach the merits, would likely in any event be inclined to defer to congressional judgment regarding the propriety of remote voting, particularly under the extraordinary circumstances presented.

Nonetheless, Congress should be concerned not only with the possibility of judicial review, but whether a remote voting procedure complies with the letter and spirit of the Constitution and its potential ramifications from an institutional perspective. With this perspective in mind, I would suggest a tweak to S. Res. 548. When a vote in which senators may participate remotely is scheduled, there should be an opportunity for any senator to ask for an ascertainment of a quorum in connection with the vote. If no such request is made within a set period of time, any objection to the absence of a quorum would be untimely, and the result of the vote would in effect be accepted by unanimous consent. If, on the other hand, a request for a quorum call is made, the determination should be whether a majority of the senators are present within the seat of government at the time they cast their votes. This would have the effect of encouraging senators to be present in Washington D.C. if at all possible, and avoid any institutional slippage toward remote participation as a normal practice. Finally, whether in conjunction with a remote voting procedure or otherwise, the House and Senate should also use technology to maximize the ability of members to communicate and deliberate together during this period.

This may not be a perfect solution, but it seems to me the best that can be achieved under these difficult circumstances.

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