As a pre-schooler in the early-1970’s, I feasted on a steady diet of Sesame Street, Brady Bunch….and Zoom! Who’d a thunk that nearly a half-century later I’d be spending a good chunk of my days with Zoom looking at a Brady Bunch screen?
Since Governor Scott’s emergency declaration on March 13th and with the community spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout Vermont, the State House building has closed. The work of the Vermont legislature has moved to kitchen tables and home offices and Zoom screens across the state. While I was initially concerned that the legislature’s remote work deliberations would reduce transparency to the general public, in many ways the work of the General Assembly has become more accessible than ever before.
ABOVE: House Committee Chairs' Zoom call 3/30/20
The Vermont legislature is governed by rules similar to the open meeting laws that dictate how local school boards and selectboards conduct business. The legislature also abides by Mason’s rules of legislative procedure (like Robert’s Rules of Order), while the House and the Senate each have rules particular to how each chamber operates.
In the first few days after the governor’s declared emergency, the legislature operated through publicly accessible conference calls. With a lot of handholding from the legislature’s information technology staff, we have evolved to holding committee hearings via Zoom video conferences accessible to the general public for viewing on YouTube. Generally, legislators have quickly adapted to the new interface, though hearings are occasionally interrupted by a ringing phone, a barking dog, or cues to “mute/unmute your line!” While there’s no formal State House dress code for attending a hearing from your living room, legislators are generally attentive to what they’re wearing and how well kept the house is in the background.
In this new Zoom/YouTube format, instead of needing to drive to Montpelier to listen in on a House committee hearing, you can go to a committee’s webpage, click on a link, and attend the hearing live. Recordings of previous hearings are saved to the committee’s page. You can access the current week’s committee agendas and House committee webpages here. Jim’s Ways & Means Committee has hearings at 10am on both Tuesday (3/31) and Wednesday (4/1) this week. My Energy & Technology Committee next meets on Wednesday (4/1) at 11am.
ABOVE: House Appropriations Committee hearing 3/27/20
The steeper challenge for the VT legislature to overcome will be how to pass legislation without gathering at the State House. House Rules do not allow for remote voting. One must be present in a committee room or in the House chamber in order to cast a vote.
On March 25th, the House passed three resolutions to clear the way for remote voting. The first two, House Resolutions 16 & 17, allow House committees to cast votes remotely in order to move legislation out of committee to be considered by the full House.
House Resolution 18 establishes a procedure – a remote vote requiring a three-quarters majority – to adopt a rule that would allow the House to debate and vote upon legislation by remote means. The 75% vote threshold is consistent with the high bar required to change the Rules of the House. The remote voting procedure, if adopted, would only be in effect until the earlier of the end of VT’s state of emergency or the convening of the 2021 legislative session.
These three House Resolutions were collaboratively negotiated amongst the Speaker and the leaders of each of the party caucuses to reflect the urgency of the current health care crisis and the flexibility the legislature will require to address the fiscal ramifications of this emergency.
In preparation for the prospect of remote voting, I have been working with a group of a half-dozen other representatives to test the software the House would use to cast and record votes remotely. We’re looking at its ease of use, its traceability and security, and how well the software will allow us to comply with parliamentary procedure. The challenge of orchestrating a debate between 150 legislators on a Zoom video conference call might be the greatest test of all.
ABOVE: remote voting software test group 3/27/20
With the legislature going to extraordinary lengths to maintain, even expand, the transparency and accountability with which the General Assembly operates, it remains to be seen whether the world of Zoom calls and YouTube channels will rise to the needs of a governing body when addressing controversial legislation. How well will Zoom work when we can’t find consensus? The personal interactions and relationships that allow us to forge compromise and make tough choices are difficult to replicate when we’re staring at screens.
We don’t know how long this state of emergency will last, how long we will need to remain socially isolated, or when it will be safe to again gather in large groups. Perhaps we’ll get to a point in the coming weeks (months?) where social distancing measures will ease, yet some legislators with higher health risks will continue to require some form of isolation. In such a circumstance, remote voting and committee participation would still allow our legislature to function in its broadest democratic form.
In the immediate term, as we’re all focused on addressing this emergency, and while political divisions and ideological differences have been put aside to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, technology is allowing the legislature to continue to work. And of the scores and scores of things I look forward to when this state of emergency has been lifted, one of them will be to turn off the screen and attend to the state’s business in-person, face-to-face.