Rep. Madison Cawthorn once opposed the special Covid-era rule that lets House members vote even when they’re away from the House, calling it for “cowards,” but on Wednesday the North Carolina Republican made flagrant and unabashed use of it — by traveling to the border wall for a political event with former President Donald Trump.
He wasn’t alone in doing so. Eight other House Republicans also managed to appear alongside Trump at the border while simultaneously casting critical votes back in Washington. All they had to do was sign a letter to the House clerk saying they were “unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.”
It’s the latest example of lawmakers using a tool meant to ease health concerns for expressly political means in what appears to be a clear violation of the rule. However, there’s little desire from either side of the aisle to punish members for violations: Democrats see proxy voting as a way to ensure they keep their slim majority regardless of whether all their members are on Capitol Hill, and Republicans have started to use it more, despite their objections.
Democrats have made even more liberal use of the tool, which started off in 2020 as a way to protect members from the pandemic but now enables lawmakers to enjoy the benefits of working remotely — much like other white-collar American workers.
In May, seven House Democrats joined President Joe Biden when he went to Michigan. Just Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Ron Kind voted proxy the same day he greeted Biden in Wisconsin, having taken the time away to “discuss directly with the President ways we can increase vaccination rates in Wisconsin,” he said in a statement.
But Republicans are the ones who, as a group, loudly criticized proxy voting, even filing a lawsuit to challenge its constitutionality. Forty of those original Republican plaintiffs have used proxy voting at least once, according to a comprehensive analysis conducted by CNN.
“We are against proxy voting and will eliminate it on day one of our majority, but if Democrats are going to continue to extend and abuse this tool solely to protect their slim margins, it would be stupid of us to not participate until we can eliminate it,” a Republican leadership aide told CNN.
Even House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the architect of the proxy voting system, conceded to CNN on Tuesday that members on both sides of the aisle were not using the system the way it was initially intended.
“I think you’re right on that,” the Maryland Democrat told CNN when presented with examples of how members have misused the practice. “On both sides.”
Even so, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday extended proxy voting for an additional 45 days, as it had been set to expire on July 3.
Democrats outstrip Republicans in use of proxy voting
In a comprehensive accounting of 185 roll call votes from the time an extension of proxy voting went into effect on January 12 until Tuesday, CNN has found that five Democratic members have voted solely by proxy in that time frame: Reps. Al Lawson of Florida, Frederica Wilson of Florida, Grace Napolitano of California, Ted Lieu of California and Alan Lowenthal of California.
Democratic Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey has voted by proxy for every vote except one: the vote to impeach Trump.
Democrats currently have a four-vote majority in the House and 73% of Democrats have utilized proxy voting over the period CNN examined.
A House Democratic leadership aide defended extending the proxy voting period and why certain members have consistently used the practice.
“The federal government is still in a state of emergency. The (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) still has a public health emergency declared,” the aide said. “No one can receive the vaccine under the age of 12, so that impacts a large number of members who have young children. Also, there are a number of people who, you know, during a pandemic, the child care is a challenge. So those are the four things keeping this going.”
The aide added, “I’m not excusing anybody who’s doing it inappropriately. I’m saying the vast majority of this — the overwhelming use of proxy voting — has been completely legitimate and in line with the purposes it was intended for.”
Although Democrats far surpass Republicans’ use of proxy voting, 37% of Republicans have bucked their party’s stance against the voting tool and used it at least once. Of the initial 130 Republicans to serve as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, 40 have voted via proxy, a total of 734 collective votes among them.
Since that lawsuit was filed, more and more Republicans have dropped off as named plaintiffs, with just 21 remaining on the case. Of those 21, three have still selectively used proxy voting: Mark Green of Tennessee, Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Kay Granger of Texas, who used it as recently as June 17. CNN has reached out to all of these members for comment.
In a statement, Cole said: “Even when I fundamentally disagree with the Rules of the House, there is nothing inconsistent with following those rules as they currently exist while actively working to change them.”
Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska made the case to CNN that while he is against proxy voting, his party’s public opposition to the practice hurts its chances of challenging the Democratic majority, especially when a given vote is close.
“I oppose proxy voting in principle and have not voted by proxy to date. But when Democrats can do it and we ask our conference not to, it puts us at a disadvantage on close votes,” he told CNN.
Most frequent users have health challenges
Of the members who utilized proxy voting the most and who got back to CNN, most cited health reasons and the fact that not all members of Congress are vaccinated as why they continue to use the practice.
Patrick Wright, Payne’s communication director, said the congressman is diabetic and intends to continue to vote via proxy until more members of Congress are vaccinated.
“The congressman has employed proxy voting simply because of the fact that it’s just better for his health and the health of his colleagues,” Wright told CNN.
“Until everyone in Congress understands the power of the vaccine and the importance of it to getting things back to normal, the congressman is going to have to continue to vote proxy for his own health and health and safety of his colleagues.”
Payne returned to Congress on Wednesday for the first time in months to participate in a news conference addressing an upcoming bill on infrastructure.
“The speaker asked me to be here, and when the speaker calls you tend to answer,” Payne told CNN. He nonetheless voted by proxy during the afternoon.
Lowenthal, whose spokesperson shared with CNN that the congressman has been utilizing proxy voting for all of his votes because of guidance from the House and his personal physician, told CNN that he believes the proxy voting system has worked well. Lowenthal shared that he looks forward to returning to Washington.
“I think that during this national emergency the proxy voting system has worked amazingly well and has served a critical role in allowing Congress and the government to keep functioning,” Lowenthal said in a statement. “I have not personally seen anyone misusing the proxy voting process.”
An aide for Napolitano, who lost a member of her staff due to Covid and has voted proxy for every vote since CNN started its tally, said the congresswoman has been voting via proxy to protect her health but is considering returning to Congress.
“I would say the congresswoman and our entire office had just taken the pandemic very, very seriously,” Jerry O’Donnell, Napolitano’s deputy chief of staff, told CNN. “It’s really in consultation with the attending physician and her health history and limiting her movement during the worst months of the pandemic.”
“She is hoping to be back in Washington during the next session, probably in July,” O’Donnell added.
Republicans remain skeptical of those health concerns.
“For those members who are using that excuse, are we tracking them to see are they only staying inside their house and never going anywhere? Do they ever go to a restaurant? Do they ever go to a mall? Do they ever go to a store?” the Republican leadership aide said.
Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry said he views Democrats’ desire to hold on to proxy voting as a way to cushion their majority.
“I think at this point it’s being held on to for political purposes rather than for health purposes, and I think that’s a real challenge,” the North Carolinian told CNN.
“They don’t care where I work”
Other lawmakers admit that they’re using the proxy voting system simply because they don’t want to be in the nation’s capital right now.
Florida’s Rep. Vern Buchanan — the Republican who has used proxy voting the most, according to CNN’s analysis — told CNN that he believes proxy voting should end after Labor Day. While it’s in place, he chose to buck his party and use the voting method repeatedly because he felt like he could be more productive working from his district.
“I can be a lot more productive back home. There’s nobody up here. So I just felt like I’d have a bigger impact in my district back in Sarasota,” Buchanan told CNN.
“Nobody else was here. Nobody in my office was here. I sit by myself,” Buchanan added. “Nobody can come in and visit with you. We can be more productive visiting with people having meetings back home, not spending a half a day each way coming up here, flying up here, and there’s nobody here.”
Democratic Rep. Katie Porter — who represents Orange County, California, and cited public health guidelines for why she voted via proxy 137 times — told CNN that her constituents do not care where she casts her votes from as long as she gets her work done.
“My constituents just want me to work really hard. They don’t care where I work. We don’t have to do things the way we have done since the time of sand,” Porter told CNN last week.
Other lawmakers have used the proxy voting system for openly political purposes.
In April, Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Joyce Beatty of Ohio and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas were all seen in Minnesota participating in protests around the Derek Chauvin murder trial, but they still used proxy voting to cast their votes as the House was in session.
Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, one of the members of the Michigan delegation to use proxy voting to join Biden in the state in May, defended his decision to use proxy voting that day in a statement to CNN.
“Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, members of Michigan’s congressional delegation were unable to travel on Air Force One with the President to Dearborn. As a result, Members had to take a commercial flight, hours after the presidential visit ended, that required them to vote by proxy,” Kildee said in a statement.
Hoyer said of the six Democrats who use proxy voting the most, “If we did not have proxy voting, they’d all be here,” conceding that without the option, members would have to come to Congress rather than miss votes.
How proxy voting has changed how Congress works
With as many as 70 members not voting in person on a given day, the practice of proxy voting has changed the dynamics on Capitol Hill.
The need to stick to a rigid schedule, and the pressure that an impending recess puts on getting a deal done, decreases significantly if members are casting their votes from home.
“Smelling jet fumes used to be a thing. That’s how you got a deal,” a separate Republican leadership aide told CNN. “That doesn’t really exist anymore.”
McHenry made the case that proxy voting needs to end so members can get back to working directly with each other.
“I think, frankly, as an institution we should get back to dealing with each other, talking to each other and trying to understand each other so we can actually do the work of the American people. We’re not doing that right now,” McHenry said. “People aren’t here. And we’re a one-on-one institution. We’re a human interaction place both with members and with the press.”
Hoyer believes proxy voting has spurred a conversation about how Congress can modernize and incorporate elements of remote voting in the future.
“When people vote for me to represent their view, they don’t vote for me to represent it here, there,” he said, referring to the various voting stations in the House chamber.
“You don’t have to stand in some place. They don’t care about that. They care about how I express their viewpoint,” Hoyer added.
“I think we’re going to have a discussion about that.”