Most proposals would limit remote voting to “noncontroversial” measures–basically, bills considered under “suspension of the rules,” a process requiring two-thirds passage (290 votes in the House). Many bills are noncontroversial. Congress renames a lot of post offices and regulates federal lands, among other bills of relatively minor significance. But even “noncontroversial” legislation can be a big deal. The “Doc-Fix,” which affected billions of dollars of healthcare spending, frequently passed under suspension of the rules. The second coronavirus assistance package, set to pass this week, is currently lined up on the suspension calendar. Suspension bills have retooled agencies’ prosecutorial authority, empowered inspectors general, and significantly changed how programs operate. Yes, the suspension calendar is primarily a vehicle for less controversial legislation, but not all non-controversial legislation is insignificant legislation.
Even worse, remote voting distances members from the policymaking process. Among the worst features of the current process is the gulf between rank-and-file members and the substance of legislating. Members are shut out of the floor amendment process. Leaders structure major agreements and present them take-it-or-leave-it packages. Omnibus legislation forces members to accept sometimes dozens of policy riders that would otherwise receive greater vetting if voted upon individually. Agencies receive less routine oversight and formal direction because regular but important reauthorizations fail to garner enough political or media attention. Agency spending bills escape scrutiny by passing en bloc rather than separately. If we want more individual member influence, putting distance between members and the process does the opposite. It gives leaders even more opportunity to legislate in secret, manipulate the process, and otherwise keep rank and file in the dark. For rank-and-file members to hold their congressional leaders accountable – whether committee chairs or party leaders – they need to, at a minimum, be physically present. “Remoting it in” has consequences.