Get Congress to vote - by any means necessary

September 13, 2013
In The News

Freshman Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, holds the most exemplary voter-participation record among Bay Area House members. He missed just one vote this year, in the confusion of learning the system on his first day in office, involving an inconsequential procedural matter. His record is otherwise unblemished, including voting to defend Obamacare on the 41 times House Republicans have tried to repeal it.

Still, the House voting process is neither easy for the Western-state members nor particularly efficient for the institution.

Each Monday morning, Swalwell and several of his House colleagues gather at San Francisco International Airport for the 6 a.m. flight to Washington. It is the surest way to be on Capitol Hill for a succession of routine votes at 6:30 p.m.

It is a royal pain for legislators such as Swalwell who are committed to return to their districts every weekend. He is not complaining. At least his flight is direct. He notes that some colleagues in the “big-box states like Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho” have one or two stopovers followed by a long drive home.

It’s a mighty trek back for what often is a trivial voting procedure. The big issues are never on the Monday night docket.

“Most of the noncontroversial votes are for naming post offices or allowing the Boy Scouts to use the Capitol grounds for their soap-box derbies … those are the types of things we will come here on a Monday to vote for,” Swalwell said. “You kind of scratch your head and wonder: ‘Why can’t I do some of this remotely?’ ”

He could, if he can persuade enough colleagues to pass HR287, which he co-sponsored with Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. It would allow House members to vote remotely on procedural issues and participate in committee hearings via videoconference. Certain witnesses also would be able to testify before Congress by videoconference.

Swalwell said his measure was inspired, in part, by a concern for new parents such as Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who gave birth this summer.

“Congress, I think, is not very family friendly for a woman who has a child and can’t come back to work immediately,” said Swalwell, a 32-year-old bachelor. “You’re going to have to miss votes.”

The technology is there for HR287. The will to change is another matter.

“It’s an institution that upgrades itself very irregularly … it moves slow,” Swalwell said. “It’s an institution where just last century they finally put a women’s bathroom off the House floor. It’s going to take some time.”

It’s also going to bump into the inherent conflict between whether the legislative process is better served by having members of Congress spend more time in Washington, building relationships and trust with one another, or hanging out with and listening to the people they represent.

There is a school of thought that one of the sources of the polarization in Congress is that too few members socialize across ideological or party lines on the weekends anymore. It’s much easier to find common ground, and harder to demonize, when members and their families know and like one another.

Yet there also is a danger of members becoming too comfortable and enamored with life inside the Beltway, where they are treated as dignitaries and insulated from constituents demanding their time and attention. Swalwell’s election was propelled, in part, by the detachment of 40-year incumbent Pete Stark, a fellow Democrat whose contempt for constituent feedback and media scrutiny was well documented in various videotaped encounters.

Stark, as various current members in safe Bay Area seats, had a spotty voting record. Swalwell’s remote-voting bill would not necessarily cure the plethora of missed votes that were detailed in Wednesday’s front-page story by political reporter Carla Marinucci.

The two biggest offenders – Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez (missed 64 votes this year) and Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough (missed 51) – each had a list of excuses involving medical issues or family situations that kept them away from the House floor. Neither faces a serious challenge to re-election.

Rep. Mike Honda, a San Jose Democrat who missed 53 votes, is more likely to feel the heat. He is facing a well-funded and tech-savvy foe, Ro Khanna, a former Obama administration trade representative. Khanna’s campaign certainly will not miss the chance to compare the dates of those missed votes with evidence of Honda’s presence elsewhere. Stay tuned for its emergence as an issue in the 2014 campaign.

As someone who has long tracked patterns of nonvoting in the California Legislature, I find it interesting to compare the serial offenders in Sacramento and Washington.

In Sacramento, the nonvoters tend to be the least politically secure: most typically moderate Assembly Democrats who are either worried about a challenger from the left or are angling for a Senate seat. They “take a walk” on contentious issues – often involving consumer or environmental issues – to avoid the wrath of the Democratic base while appeasing the business interests that oppose such legislation. A nonvote has the same effect as voting no. It makes a difference; bills die due to nonvoting.

In Washington, the nonvoters are typically the most entrenched incumbents. They have little or no fear of challenge. And, in the case of Bay Area Democrats, their votes rarely make a difference in a GOP-controlled House.

Still, we elect members of Congress to do their job, for which each is paid $174,000 a year. They need to vote.

The Swalwell-Pearce bill will remove one more excuse for missed votes. It’s time to move the voting process into the 21st century by allowing remote voting -and making those roll calls instantly accessible online for constituents to decide for themselves whether the issue is of importance.

Moving Congress into the 21st century

House Resolution 287 would bring the digital age into everyday legislative work.


Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.

What it would do

Committee hearings: Members and invited witnesses would be allowed to participate remotely – and the member’s “presence” would count toward a quorum. However, the rule would not apply to “mark up” sessions in which the content of legislation is debated and amended.

Voting: Members could vote remotely on what are called suspension bills, which are generally noncontroversial items that require a two-thirds vote to pass.


Awaiting initial action in the House Rules Committee