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Republicans suffer embarrassing court defeat in proxy-voting case

House GOP leaders were so outraged by COVID-era proxy voting, they literally made a federal case out of it. That was unwise.


As the pandemic started taking a severe national toll last year, House Democratic leaders came up with a temporary fix intended to limit lawmakers' exposure. Under the plan, individual lawmakers who hoped to avoid the floor of the Capitol -- because they were experiencing symptoms, because someone in their household was ill, etc. -- could now vote by proxy.

It wasn't complicated: members could reach an agreement with like-minded colleagues, who in turn would agree to vote on their behalf. The system ensured that many representatives could participate in the legislative process during a pandemic without endangering themselves or their colleagues.

For reasons I've never fully understood, Republicans were outraged. In fact, in May 2020, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) joined with 20 other GOP lawmakers in filing a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of proxy voting.

A district court rejected the case, concluding that it wasn't up to the judiciary to intervene in how the legislative branch established its own procedural rules. Yesterday, as the New York Times reported, an appellate court agreed.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out a Republican lawsuit against Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had sought to take down the proxy voting system adopted by the House of Representatives to allow for remote legislating during the coronavirus pandemic. In a 12-page opinion, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously that courts did not have jurisdiction under the Constitution to wade into the House's rules and procedures, and that the case should be dismissed.

Even a Trump-appointed appellate judge agreed that the case deserved to be rejected.

There was a degree of irony to the circumstances. While GOP lawmakers cried foul when Democrats first created the proxy system, Republicans ended up embracing the model with some enthusiasm.

Indeed, though the system was intended to address the COVID crisis, some members -- including several far-right Republicans -- have apparently abused the temporary rules, voting by proxy while appearing at events such as the Conservative Political Action Conference. Kevin McCarthy and other GOP leaders -- the ones who literally made a federal case out of the temporary model -- said very little when their own members started taking advantage of the system.

So what happens now? On the Republican side, McCarthy and his cohorts will have to decide whether to appeal yesterday's ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, though it's difficult to imagine why they'd bother.

On the Democratic side, when the proxy policy was first created in May 2020, it was designed to be temporary, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a position to extend the emergency authority every 45 days. As the Times' report added, "the current period is set to expire in mid-August."

If Pelosi concludes that enough members have been vaccinated, and the abuses of the rules have become too common, proxy voting may come to a swift end.