Written by Frank Lockwood
Published by Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette
A public health emergency has closed the U.S. Capitol to visitors. Congressional offices are largely deserted as staffers comply with stay-at-home orders.
But if votes are taken later this month, all 429 current U.S. representatives and all 100 U.S. senators may be summoned back to Washington to cast them.
Under House and Senate rules, remote voting is not allowed. Given the covid-19 pandemic, some lawmakers are questioning whether the system ought to be changed.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro, has long believed that the system needs an overhaul.
In April 2017, he backed a resolution that would have allowed lawmakers to participate in committee hearings via videoconferencing.
Last month, he joined U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., in reintroducing the Members Operating to Be Innovative and Link Everyone Resolution — also known as the MOBILE Resolution.
“I just think it’s time that we take a step into the 21st century with regard to how we conduct business in this institution,” Crawford said shortly after the resolution was filed.
In addition to allowing lawmakers to remotely participate in committee hearings, it would allow them to vote on motions to suspend the rules. These motions are typically used to speed up passage of noncontroversial bills that have broad bipartisan support.
The resolution, which applies only to the House, would require creation of a “secure remote voting system.”
While Crawford’s measure would allow only House votes on noncontroversial matters, some lawmakers would prefer to go even further during a national public health emergency.
Dozens of House members signed a letter last month asking U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., the House Rules Committee chairman, to temporarily change the rules so remote voting would be allowable.
“[R]equiring Members to vote in person may pose public health risks or even be physically impossible for persons under quarantine. We need to provide a mechanism through which Congress can act during times of crisis without having to assemble in one place,” it stated.
That proposal was opposed by the House Democratic leadership and numerous Republicans.
“If you made a commitment to represent the people, then I think you need to show up,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers, who hasn’t missed a vote since he took office in 2011.
As he prepared to cast his final vote before Easter recess, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman cautioned against quick changes to the voting system.
“If we look at something like that, I think it’s something that needs to be debated and the rules changed in an appropriate manner and implemented,” the Republican from Hot Springs said. “I see where there could be a lot of problems with remote voting.”
U.S. Rep. French Hill also expressed skepticism at the time.
“I’d like to see the proposal. I would not be supportive of it except in extremely extreme emergencies,” the Republican from Little Rock said.
During the recent stimulus-package debate, a few lawmakers missed votes after testing positive for the coronavirus or coming in close contact with an infected person.
Crawford wasn’t one of them, but he knows what it’s like to be sidelined by health issues.
A fractured fibula in September forced him to miss the Congressional Football Game — and some work.
“Last year, I missed a week when I got hurt playing football and was laid up at home for at least a week, and that would have been a time I could have voted had we had the capability,” he said.
The voting barriers are rules-based, he said.
“The technology is certainly there. It’s a question of synthesizing that technology and making it apply for what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s not that difficult.”
Most absences aren’t caused by a public health emergency.
“It could be personal; it could be professional. It could be any number of reasons, and they’re all legitimate,” Crawford said. “I think we should be able to harness technology so that we don’t see people miss votes for an extended period of time.”
Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, fears that remote voting would lead to greater division on Capitol Hill.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit group that he leads says it is “dedicated to helping Members of Congress better serve their constituents.”
“If you keep removing members from each other and they don’t have to look at each other in the face and they can just throw insults out over the internet, I think you exacerbate this drift we have towards highly partisan polarization that’s paralyzing the Congress,” he said Friday.
Crawford suggests that limits could be put in place to avoid misuse.
Remote votes could be tracked so voters would know how often their representatives had been physically absent, he said.
“The thing that we want to be careful of is that it’s not abused and then people just quit coming to Washington,” Crawford said. “That’s not what that’s about.”