It’s essential that Massachusetts state government be able to function effectively and safely in the months ahead, since the COVID-19 crisis will demand efficient action on any number of fronts.
One big problem is how the Legislature will meet in the era of social distancing. A House member, Mike Day of Stoneham, has already tested positive, and cramming lawmakers and staff into the State House carries obvious risks. The Legislature needs figure out a way to meet online and, if necessary, cast formal votes without exacerbating the very crisis it’s trying to solve.
Since this pandemic struck, both the 40-member Senate and the 160-member House have been holding informal sessions — and live-streaming them — which means that business can be conducted with just a handful of legislators present, as long as there is unanimous consent. So far, they have been able to pass a number of pieces of legislation that way, notes Senate President Karen Spilka, who lists the $15 million supplemental budget for coronavirus response, a bill eliminating a one-week wait for unemployment insurance, and a measure giving municipalities the ability to delay local elections.
“We are continuing to do our work even if it might be in a little different fashion than we are all used to,” she says. The Senate has held, via Zoom, a video-conference caucus of all members, two online Democratic caucuses, and regular leadership meetings. The president has also established an eight-member working group tasked with keeping the body in touch with developing needs across the state.
The House is operating more on a diet of conference calls, outreach from committee chairs to committee members, and a nightly e-mail from leadership to all representatives. But Speaker Robert DeLeo says that this week, he hopes to have the entire House on a conference call.
At some point, there will probably have to be a formal session, with most or all members in actual or virtual attendance. If the COVID-19 contagion seems to be running its course by early summer, one perfectly reasonable possibility would be to extend the formal legislative year, which normally ends on July 31 in election years.
But a formal session may be required before the crisis has abated. That raises the question of whether legislators will come together in the State House or find a way to meet virtually. The issues there are two: whether there are constitutional obstacles to meeting remotely and, if not, whether there’s a way to ensure votes are properly cast and recorded. There is no court ruling or precedent either way; the question simply has never been asked.
It would be theoretically possible to use a variety of State House spaces — the two legislative chambers, Gardner Auditorium, and the larger committee rooms, say — to keep legislators at the proper remove from each other (though the House and Senate would probably have to meet on separate days).
“We could . . . divide them up into 10 to 20 in various rooms throughout the State House, where they could watch what is going on,” says DeLeo, though he notes that if members wanted to speak "they would probably have to go into the chamber.”
But a formal legislative session requires more than just lawmakers. Spilka notes that senators plus the minimal staffing needed would put the attendees above 80.
If it proves constitutionally permissible, online formal sessions would be preferable. To prepare for that possibility, both chambers should develop and test plans to hold virtual formal sessions using video-conferencing platforms like Zoom or Teams.
Some two decades ago, it was discombobulating to some State House old-timers to have Governor Jane Swift chair the Governor’s Council via telephone while on maternity leave. But with a little technological help and training, one expects that even the worst legislative Luddites could adapt.
An extra advantage: no lobbyists!
The two sides should also tone down the rivalry, pride of authorship, and bargaining brinkmanship that too often keeps important matters from timely resolution. Has that been discussed? Can it be done?
“The communication between the speaker and me I believe has been great,” Spilka says, choosing her words carefully. “I am hopeful that as it plays out, our great communication will continue and be helpful to the people of the Commonwealth."
DeLeo says situations like these require everyone to “work together, harder, to get things done.
“Maybe you don’t get all the things you feel you should be getting, or what-not," he says, “but for the good of the Commonwealth, we will try to do that."
That’s exactly the attitude we need in these trying times.
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