One of the laments raised about Vermont’s “citizen Legislature” is that it’s not as open to its citizens as it first appears. It’s a five-month a year job that requires legislators to travel to Montpelier. It pays little. And, like moths drawn to the flame, it’s a magnet for lobbyists who specialize in buttonholing legislators. Most people can’t afford the time, or the expense of being a legislator. Most don’t want the accompanying aggravation.
Like the inertia of a babbling brook, it is what it is.
Until it isn’t. Until something dams things up and it’s forced to change course.
That’s what happened on March 13 when the pandemic prompted the governor to shut the state down, including the Legislature. Legislators now vote digitally. They have their meetings through Zoom. Legislators do their work at home [and are probably able to take out the trash between meetings.]
And the tides continue to roll in. The earth spins on its axis, just like last week. The clouds float aimlessly by ignoring the governor’s social distancing reminders.
The dark warning is that things will never be as they were, but when it comes to the Vermont Legislature and how it operates perhaps that’s okay.
Or, better than okay.
We could be on the path to a more inclusive experience, where the process is more open to public participation, where lobbyists have less influence, and where people are more inclined to offer their services as legislators.
If you believe the success of any process depends on the talent of those involved, then you should be open to exploring a process that makes it easier for the best and brightest to be interested in participating in the legislative process ... as legislators.
If legislators did not have to travel to Montpelier at least four days a week every week from the opening gavel in early January to, most years, late April or early May, and if they could do their work from home, or where they work, perhaps more people would consider the calling. It would be less expensive and it would allow them to maintain a semblance of their day jobs. They would not be separated from their families. They would also be closer to their constituents.
It’s also an open question as to whether being anchored at home as opposed to the state house would allow, or even encourage legislators to be more independent, to be a bit more immune to the pressure exerted by party leaders, or lobbyists.
A hundred reasons will be given as proof it’s a bad idea to depart from traditions birthed generations ago. That’s always the case; it’s why inertia is earth’s most powerful force. We shouldn’t expect otherwise.
But the isolating effects of the virus will extend for the remainder of this year. The chances are overwhelming it will continue until, and if, a vaccine is found to defeat the virus absolutely, and the odds are good that time period will include the next legislative session. There are few places in Vermont that are more susceptible to the transmission of disease, than the statehouse. It’s a miracle there wasn’t an outbreak in the days before the state of emergency was declared. And very few will be comfortable showing up next January expecting things to be as they were.
Instead of waiting for a declaration we expect, it should be an expectation that the Legislature’s business will continue to be conducted remotely, and we should figure out ways to make it more open, more democratic, even more creative.
We should be aware of the opportunities. For example, if the Legislature’s business is done remotely, that could level the playing field between regions, or at least it should. How do we use this potential to lessen the dominance of Chittenden County in the legislative process? As we do the incredibly difficult work of putting a budget together — and one that might be hundreds of millions of dollars short in revenue — how do we disseminate this information to the public, and not just our legislators, in a way that invites their participation in the broadest sense?
We need to figure out what this technology looks like, how it would be used, and how the public could be educated as to its availability. It’s a different way of communicating, but it’s what we have in the moment and it may be with us for a while, Let’s figure out how to use it to broaden the brush strokes of Vermont’s democracy. Let’s change the course of the babbling brook.
by Emerson Lynn