New bipartisan bill would let moms in Congress vote by proxy after giving birth

WASHINGTON — Not long before she gave birth to her first child in August, first-term Rep. Anna Paulina Luna met with the House Republican leadership to ask how she should plan to cast votes on behalf of her constituents after her delivery.

“They told me that I couldn’t vote,” that House rules prohibited it, the Republican firebrand from Florida recalled in an interview with NBC News. Although she is the 12th woman to give birth while serving in Congress, the House has no guidance for members postpartum.

Matters only got worse after Luna developed high blood pressure right before giving birth, a potentially fatal condition known as pre-eclampsia that affects some pregnant women, and continued to struggle after her delivery. In her first weeks of motherhood, as her fellow lawmakers voted to avoid a government shutdown and to oust then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Luna also developed mastitis, an infection common among women who are nursing, and her doctors advised her not to travel back to Washington.

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) holds her son as the House of Representatives on October 17, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file)
Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) holds her son as the House of Representatives on October 17, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file)

Determined to change the dynamic for women who come after her, Luna spent her doctor-mandated time at home reading the 1,500-page House Rules and Manual during breaks from caring for her baby boy, Henry. Now, she’s introducing a bipartisan bill that would allow women to vote by proxy — having a colleague cast a vote on their behalf — for the first six weeks after giving birth.

“I just wanted to make sure that this was one, put down on paper, so that there’s some guidance for other members that have kids after me,” she told NBC News in an interview. “Two, I just don’t think it’s fair to remove moms from the conversation. I can’t help having a baby. It’s a part of my life and so I shouldn’t be discriminated against because of it.”

She found an unlikely partner in her bid to change the archaic rules of the House: Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat from California, who co-wrote the legislation with her. The two would seem to have very little in common. Luna is a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump and aligns herself with conservative hard-liners on almost every issue, while Jacobs is a member of her party leadership and often champions a progressive platform.

But they bonded over their age — both are 34 and serving in a chamber where the average age of a lawmaker is almost double that — and common interests outside of politics.

Jacobs, who froze her eggs during her first year in Congress, in 2021, said that she wants to have children but worries about doing so while working in a profession that isn’t set up for new parents.

“I’ll be honest, this institution was designed by old men for old men. And there really isn’t anything in place to help support so many of us younger members,” Jacobs, seated next to Luna in the Capitol, said Wednesday. “And I think it’s important that we have more young people, that we have more parents who are in office because we just have different issues we’re dealing with, and we need to make sure that Congress is addressing those issues, as well.”

Proxy voting became a partisan issue on Capitol Hill after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi authorized the practice in May 2020 during the pandemic. Members took advantage of the unprecedented House rule change to avoid exposure while traveling to Washington or while sick themselves.

But the practice continued even as many Americans were required to return to work in person and some lawmakers began using it for other reasons, like attending political events. Proxy voting became deeply unpopular among Republicans, even as many used it themselves. Then-Republican leader Kevin McCarthy even challenged it in court and promptly ended the practice when the GOP reclaimed the House majority last year.

Rep. Tim Burchett, of Tennessee, was among the Republicans who opposed proxy voting, but he supports Luna and Jacobs’ legislation.

“Friends called me to ask me to proxy vote for them and I wouldn’t do it, mainly because I think members abused the practice during Covid,” he said during a news conference Thursday unveiling the bill. “They used it to go to fundraisers, they used it to go on vacations. I mean, they’d just fake things, but you can’t fake a pregnancy.”

Anna Paulina Luna in the Longworth House Office Building (Frank Thorp V / NBC News)
Anna Paulina Luna in the Longworth House Office Building (Frank Thorp V / NBC News)

Luna herself opposed proxy voting when she entered Congress. But she now chalks her old views up to inexperience.

“I think as a first-time freshman, there’s a lot that you don’t fully understand of how the institution works. And so a lot of it, you’re just kind of expected to learn on your own,” she said. “I will admit that I think that that is a mistake because what you’re essentially doing is you’re preventing female members from one, not just having children, but also two, you’re basically saying you have to choose between your career and your family.”

The legislation is narrowly written to apply only to a “member who has recently given birth,” intentionally excluding new mothers who have a baby via surrogate or choose to adopt and men who have children while serving in Congress. (That became an issue right at the beginning of this session when McCarthy needed votes to become speaker and Rep. Wesley Hunt, a freshman Republican from Texas, missed two rounds of voting after his son was born prematurely.)

“This is just the one topic that we’re choosing to address,” Luna said, adding that she’s not opposed to expanding certain elements of proxy voting. “But I mean, every Congress sets its own House rules. So I’m assuming because of those discussions, that this is probably going to be addressed next Congress as well,” she added.

Jacobs has joined Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2022, and other Democrats in pushing to expand proxy voting even further, allowing the practice for lawmakers who are experiencing serious medical conditions or have a spouse or dependent who is.

“I know in talking to my Democratic colleagues, there is a lot of appetite to try to modernize Congress so that we have some of the same workplace rights as any other employee,” Jacobs said. “So that we’re able to be with family members when they’re, you know, dying — so we’re able to have a robust family life and serve as members of Congress.”

Luna said it would be “hypocritical” for colleagues to oppose their bill “since you have my party that promotes family values and motherhood, and then you have the Democrat Party that promotes women’s empowerment.”

The legislation might even open the door to establishing a paid leave policy for members of Congress, something that is only set up for the staff who work for them.

“There’s nothing in place for female members that give birth. So I think that we should consider coming up with something,” Luna said. “I did not ever expect to be told that I couldn’t represent my constituents. I think it was a slap in the face to all of them. And I think that it’s time that we change that.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com