Members of Congress today still like to enact important laws. However, they prefer to do so in the most convenient, expeditious and painless ways possible. This observation struck home last week when The Hill (March 12) reported that House Democrats are considering extending proxy voting on the floor beyond the pandemic emergency, under limited circumstances. Such limits, theoretically, have limitless possibilities: serious illness; caring for a relative with a serious illness; not feeling well this week; missed my flight to D.C.

It is understandable that absent members have become accustomed to the convenience and painlessness of proxy voting, though their colleagues in the chamber are not experiencing a more expeditious process because votes are taking more than twice as long as usual, thanks in part to social distancing (members are staggered in small groups of seven to enter the chamber and vote), and in part to the additional time taken to announce proxies.

Remote floor voting by proxy was first instituted as an emergency rule last May 27 as the pandemic ratcheted-up.

At the same time, the House adopted another special rule that allowed committees to hold virtual hearings and meetings, including the markup and reporting of legislation. Given the virtual presence of committee members on-screen, this seems to be working well. Its credible, participatory, and not second hand.

Under the proxy rule, absent members may designate someone present in the House to cast their vote for them, provided they specify how they would vote on each anticipated matter. Members present on the floor are limited to casting votes for no more than 10 absent members. The special rule was time-limited to every 45 days, subject to extension by the Speaker if the Capitol physician certifies the health emergency still exists.

Over the last nine-plus months, there have been 208 rollcall votes on which proxies have been cast 144 in the last Congress and 64 votes so far in this Congress, through March 11. The number of proxies cast over that period ranged from 30 to 122 (with the latter high occurring on Dec. 28 last year). Overall, proxies have averaged around 45. Still, thats more than 10 percent of the entire membership. Most proxies have been cast by Democrats as Republicans have filed a lawsuit against the practice and generally abstain from utilizing it.

When the proxy voting rule was renewed at the beginning of the current Congress, members have been reminded that reasons for absences must be limited to circumstances surrounding the pandemic (but then, what isnt nowadays). However, there is no way to verify if members have a legitimate reason for staying away. It all gets down to their self-rationalizations and how much they think their constituents will tolerate. If the proxy rule is extended beyond the pandemic, all bets are off and everything is on the table: members become their own parent-permission slips to stay at home.

So, what does it matter in this wired age when people participate in almost anything from anywhere? For Congress it is a serious matter. The Founders believed that the essence of a deliberative lawmaking process is for the representatives of the people to come together to debate their differences over a problem and arrive at some reasonable consensus. The crux of deliberation is lost when there is not a back-and-forth exchange of ideas and arguments, and then, bridging those gaps.

Yes, proxy voting is convenient and painless. But, if it becomes the new normal, it will undermine the very essence of deliberative democracy. It will be a permanent mark against the worlds greatest national lawmaking body if it resorts on a regular basis to second-hand voting on first-tier issues.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of Changing Cultures of Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.  The views expressed are solely his own.