Bradley Byrne: The absent congress

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Rep Bradley Byrne opinion
Photo courtesy of Rep. Bradley Byrne

Last Friday the House of Representatives took a truly unprecedented step. The Democrat majority voted to change our rules and allow members to vote online in committee action on bills, and to vote by proxy on passage of bills and resolutions. That’s right, members of Congress can now vote from the comfort of our homes and not set a foot in Washington. We no longer have to show up for work, like millions of Americans do every day, even during this pandemic.

Article One, Section 5 of the Constitution clearly requires a majority of members to be present for the House to do business. Indeed, if a majority is not in attendance, those present have the power to compel absent members to attend. The framers could have provided for proxy voting but did not. The young nation was brought into being by two Continental Congresses and was governed by one under the old Articles of Confederation. So, our forebears knew the importance of representatives of the people to come together in one place to do the nation’s business, to work together and debate together in passing laws.

James Madison was perhaps the most informed and influential member of the Constitutional Convention. He kept records of the daily debates. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay he wrote the Federalist Papers. Yet he, like other members of the very first Congress under the new Constitution, met for days in March of 1789 without being able to conduct business because they didn’t have a quorum present for nearly a month. He and his colleagues knew a majority had to be there.  

This wasn’t just any Congress either. Once it achieved a quorum it established the departments of Treasury, State, and War, as well as the Attorney General and Federal court system, and passed and sent to the states for ratification the Bill of Rights. Yet no one in March of 1789 thought they could act without a quorum physically present.

For 231 years the Congress has met, in person and in one place, and done its business together. Through the War of 1812, even when the British sacked Washington, and the Civil War with the Confederate Army sometimes just miles away. Through World Wars I and II and in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Through yellow fever epidemics, and the 1918 flu. Through the 1890s and early 1900s when Washington was the nation’s hotspot for typhoid fever.  

The House has at its disposal the professional help of the Capitol Attending Physician’s office, the Sergeant at Arms, and Capitol Police. We have shut down the Capitol building and offices to outside people. An army of House staff continually cleans our buildings under new strict guidelines. We are provided masks, and plenty of sanitizer. We distance when voting and are called to vote in small groups. We’ve met three times in the last two months and achieved a quorum every time. Nearly 400 members were in attendance last week.

So, we know how to do it, even during a pandemic like this one. The President has been in the White House working every day. The Senate has come back, in person. Federal workers all over the country are physically present doing their jobs which are frequently essential.

The Constitution makes the House and its work truly essential. And it requires us to be there. Not only that, in this time of political polarization, it’s even more important that we work together to get the people’s business done, and it just doesn’t work as well on the phone or in virtual meetings. We miss the opportunity to really hear one another, and it’s certainly easier to dismiss or demonize representatives from the opposite party or other places when we’re not together.

This change is historic and very damaging to the House as an institution and to the work of the nation. It sets a very bad precedent and a very bad example to the people of this country. For those in the House who are vulnerable, I understand that they can’t come, and they shouldn’t. We have members who miss votes all the time due to illness or injury. But, that doesn’t mean we should disregard the Constitution or good practice. Remember, we only need a majority for a quorum.

Now, however, 22 Democrats with proxies in hand can control the House. Indeed, the real winner here is the Speaker who easily controls everything, drafting bills in her office with the influence of unelected interests and with no hearings or committee work, just like she did with her $3 trillion far left giveaway last week. This rule change is the culmination of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s calculated effort to disempower individual members which has debased the institution. And don’t buy her arguments that this rule change is temporary. Should the Democrats return next January as a majority in the House, they will do it again.

I’m greatly saddened by this development. America is reopening and getting back to work. The House of Representatives should too.


Congressman Bradley Byrne currently represents Alabama’s 1st congressional district.