Some Texans in Congress vote through proxies for the first time in American history

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. in May. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON — In the grand scheme of worldwide upheaval, what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday could be just another indicator of how much the COVID-19 pandemic has upset normal life. But for a city and institution that thrives on formality and following past precedent, it was a stunning moment in congressional history when members of the U.S. House voted on behalf of colleagues in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Six dozen or so Democrats — including Texas representatives — opted to designate a colleague to vote on his or her behalf on a surveillance bill on Wednesday, with some wondering why such a system did not already exist. Republicans, however, fought the rule change tooth and nail, arguing that such a move upends the Constitution as they promised a protracted legal fight.

“I support proxy voting because it is the most responsible and safe voting option during the present COVID-19 pandemic,” said the dean of the Texas delegation, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, who designated a New York colleague to vote on her behalf.

About two weeks ago, U.S. House members voted for the change amid great unease about members of Congress congregating at the Capitol for votes and then dispersing back across the country. Much of the threat was to themselves, as many of them are older and more vulnerable to the oftentimes fatal complications of the virus.

But also, there is concern for their constituents and family members, as some members come to Washington from hot spots and others are from communities with comparatively less severe outbreaks. As a result, the U.S. House in recent weeks has met far less frequently than scheduled, passed sweeping legislation by voice vote and delegated dealmaking between the very top levels of the government: Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. When the full chamber did congregate, they voted in small groups rather than in aggregate, and absences were higher than normal.

So, on May 15, the House voted on a rule change that will allow for remote voting by proxy for a 45-day period. Members who were not comfortable voting in person sent letters to the House clerk designating a colleague to cast their vote for them in Washington.

Six Texans went this route, with some members appointing colleagues in the delegation, friends from other states, or members who represent districts within driving distance to the Capitol.

In normal times, voting at the Capitol is no small chore. Members schedule their entire day around the usually twice-a-day ritual. Missing votes is a frowned upon practice, and a potential political liability during campaign season. A spotty voting record is a tried and true attack method in television advertising.

So much so, that members who find themselves stuck in traffic en route to the Capitol are frequently seen sprinting through the Capitol halls yelling “One more!” in order to make the roll call.

Since the pandemic took hold, members from all over the country put on their masks and gloves every few weeks and made their way to Washington through airports and train stations. Most are encouraged with how they often have their own rows on planes. But U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville found himself unnerved on a recent trip. On the last leg of his commute to Washington — on a flight from Dallas to South Texas — the plane was full and people around him were coughing.

Once home, these members perform self-imposed quarantines so as not to infect their communities, should they be asymptomatic carriers who picked up the virus in their travels.

Vela and other members had not yet finished their quarantine from the last vote when they were called to Washington for a new round of voting.

“In some ways it breaks the monotony, to be able to go and come back,” Vela said. “[But] my wife has had two heart surgeries and when you factor in the potential risks, it's a matter of mitigating the risk.”

So Vela is staying home as Congress addresses more fallout from the pandemic and considers a surveillance bill. The last time he was in Washington for votes, he turned to a friend, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, to be his proxy.

U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth selected two members of Congress who represent suburban Washington. U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen asked U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents an adjacent South Texas district.

“I chose one of my neighbors,” Gonzalez said. “Our staffs know each other well.”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso opted for fellow freshman U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia of Houston. Garcia, a former state senator, found amusement in voting for Escobar, as she frequently voted by proxy in the Texas Legislature on behalf of another El Paso official, state Sen. José Rodriguez.

Garcia was eager to help. Most members of the delegation must first fly to Dallas or Houston and catch a connection to Washington.

“I have the luxury of having a major international airport in my area and to get on a flight [and be in Washington] in less than three hours,” she said. “Many of my colleagues do not have that luxury.”

“It's a sense of duty for a lack of better word, and if I can assist anyone in being their proxy, I'd be more than happy to do," she said.

Johnson, the Dallas Democrat, designated New York’s U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries — a potential future speaker — as her proxy, writing in a statement that he is “responsible and trustworthy.”

“Both the House Sergeant at Arms and the Office of Attending Physician have released guidelines on general safety and voting procedures that also support ‘maximum teleworking for all Congressional offices,'" Johnson said. "As Chair of the House Science Committee, I believe in Science.”

That comment is a veiled nod to the commentary from the other side of the aisle.

Republicans, including those from Texas, are furious about the change. Not one Republican voted for the rule change.

At the forefront of fighting against it is U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin, who aligned with House leadership to launch a lawsuit against the practice.

“We did not allow proxy voting while the nation was engulfed in the Civil War. We didn’t allow it while the Capitol building was on fire during the War of 1812. We didn’t allow it through World Wars and the Spanish Flu,” he said in a statement. “We didn’t allow proxy voting after 9/11. Why are we doing it now?"

“Because the damage to the institution would be so significant and immediate, it demands we resolve this question quickly to protect the Constitution and true representation in our great Republic," he later added.

In the lead up to the rule change vote, Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler shouted in his speech of opposition. He, Roy and other Republicans argue the rule change is in violation of a section of the Constitution that states “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum…”

“Now we’re going to amend the Constitution with a House rule? That’s ridiculous,” Gohmert said on the House floor. “If you’re gonna destroy 40 million lives and livelihoods, at least have the courage to come here and do it in person.”

Other Texas Republicans lined up with criticism. U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth called it a “scheme,” and U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, an Arlington Republican, went so far as to call the change " a clear violation of minority rights."

The logic from the Democratic-led House Rules Committee on the quorum is this: Members who designate colleagues for a vote by proxy count toward a quorum.

The House GOP arm is going after vulnerable Democratic members on the matter — whether or not they engage in the practice — by calling it a “staycation.” In this argument, the original sin was voting for the rule change.

National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Bob Salera sent out news releases targeting the two Texas Democrats in competitive districts.

“The Deadbeat Democrats in the House started their staycation today, with a number of Nancy Pelosi’s minions already taking advantage of their proxy voting scheme to avoid showing up for work this week,” he wrote. “These Democrats officially turned over their vote to another member of Congress, depriving their districts of representation during a global pandemic. And they do so while frontline workers across the country continue to risk their lives to keep our country moving.”

Colin Allred has been silent as to his plans since voting in favor of Pelosi’s proxy voting plan,” he added. “Will he vow to continue showing up for work? Or is Allred just waiting for the right time to kick back on the couch and relax?”

He issued an identical release directed toward U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston. Both Allred and Fletcher were present at Wednesday's votes.

Gonzalez brushed off the arguments.

“You have the liberty to be just as gross as you want to be if you want,” he said. “But I’m going to follow the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] rules, and I’m going to follow the rules that our physicians tell us to follow."

For now, the proxy system will hold. Whether or not Republicans will be successful in fighting it is unclear, as is whether the idea could become permanent.

“It’s 2020, and they need to get with the times,” Vela said.

In about a month, the current rule change will expire. Even some Democrats worry a system in which members do not need to be present to vote could further corrode the social fabric of Washington. Rounds of voting in both chambers is a social affair, with members milling about, interacting with each other and seeing one another as human beings.

Garcia suggested a permanent proxy vote could be merited in the future in the event of a similar national disaster or a disaster in the member’s district.

Vela and Gonzalez support future proxy voting, even without a pandemic. Gonzalez advocated for a rule in which members could vote for a limited number of times each term from afar.

Vela said he didn’t “think the system is going to lose anything” with this new practice.

“This is a good precedent that we're setting,” Vela said. “I think we need to take this idea of remote voting even further when you consider today's technology...but I am mindful — I think there is a value in being in Washington and interacting with colleagues of both sides of the aisle so i'm not saying we should always vote remotely but i think there's a fine balance."

Even amid the back-and-forth, Vela had a bit of levity about the situation.

Referring to his proxy, Gallego of Arizona, Vela laughed.

“Now, I'm trying to make sure he doesn't blow it," he said.