There is no pleasing everyone at state legislatures this year, or rather, especially this year.
The question is, how best to accommodate the differences.
In Washington state, one news report said, “lawmakers plan to conduct most of their 105-day session remotely, holding hearings on legislation and even voting via web conferencing. But first, they need to convene in person so they can adopt new rules allowing that to happen.” Nor was that all they had to worry about, since on the days of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, “Armed protesters breached the gate of Washington’s Governor’s Mansion the same day, with some in the crowd urging protesters to return for the first day of the legislative session.”
Oregon was a little more peaceful, but only a little, after a state legislator was caught letting protesters into locked-down space in the state capital. This was not appreciated; there have been calls for his resignation or expulsion, for putting other lawmakers, and other people, at risk of illness or injury.
One (other) Republican lawmaker wrote to his constituents, “A great part of it will be virtual – meaning the Capitol building will remain closed to the public, while the legislature meets remotely and then in person from time to time to debate legislation. This is antithetical to the legislative process set up in the Oregon Constitution.” No one is happy about it, but the protesters have little to say about keeping people from getting sick and spreading illness.
And then there’s Idaho, where legislative leaders have taken a different approach, trying to hold the session under relatively normal processes. It won’t be that simple. Some lawmakers already have filed suit to allow them to work remotely because their health would be endangered – as clearly, it would be – if they tried to work in the crowded statehouse. So have some groups who argue their members would be put in danger because of the relatively open policy in place at the Statehouse.
Even so, there’s some expectation that we’ll see more protest at the Statehouse, as the Idaho State Police statement on Statehouse etiquette seems to suggest: “During these extraordinary times, the letter is a reminder for those wishing to participate in the legislative process that rules of decorum at the State Capitol are intended to maintain public order and ensure a balance between public participation and public health and safety.” The ISP probably wouldn’t have issued such a statement if it wasn’t thought to be necessary; which it likely is.
There’s good reason for frustration. Legislative sessions, like other government meetings, can be made to work at a functional level through online technology and at a distance, but few people would call it ideal. In-person activities are something we should be aiming to get back to.
But for right now, that would be dangerous.
This shouldn’t be so hard a circle to square. You could start by putting an emphasis on the timeline.
We’ve all been living in a Covid-19 world for so long it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that the way things are now, are the way they will be permanently. But that’s not the case. As I write this the pandemic continues to rage, but the probability is that its force will start to decline as vaccines become more widely available and as an already warm winter opens out into spring. Safety procedures that do make sense now can be scaled back.
We may see some changes in the way we do things that go on for a long time, but much of what we’ve had to put up with – the masking, the building closures and much more – probably will be much less widespread. We accept temporary limitations in access when buildings are under construction or repair; this could be regarded as something similar.
By the end of the Idaho and Washington legislative sessions, in fact, there may be some opportunity to open things up; that probably will be the case in Oregon, where the legislative session will run to mid-summer.
This isn’t forever. It’s for long enough to avoid making more people sick.