Although they hailed from different states and held different titles, four legislative staffers found common ground at NCSL Base Camp 2021 when discussing their roles managing the proceedings of their respective chambers and the ways in which their work environments have changed over the years. A main area of focus was, understandably, how the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping the legislative environment.
“I think we can all say this year has been like no other,” Secretary of the Idaho Senate Jennifer Novak told attendees at the session “Secrets of Parliamentary Rule-Makers and Managers,” a guided Q&A about the role of clerks, secretaries and parliamentarians.
I think we can all say this year has been like no other. —Jennifer Novak, secretary of the Idaho Senate
Novak was joined on the panel by Secretary of the Louisiana Senate Yolanda Dixon, Parliamentarian of the Pennsylvania House Clancy Myers and Chief Clerk of the Kansas House of Representatives Susan Kannarr, who moderated the session.
While recent conditions influenced the conversation, the consensus seemed to be that the pandemic accelerated trends that were already underway. Below are three noteworthy trends impacting the legislative process.
Technology’s sizable influence on the legislative process has potential for both convenience and friction. To mitigate public health concerns, numerous processes that used to take place in person or on paper became virtual, including public testimony, the circulating of amendments, and more. Dixon commented that allowing for virtual amendments in the Louisiana Senate was “a big deal for us.” The Senate had been discussing such a change for a decade, but the conditions of the pandemic prompted the jump.
By contrast, Myers pointed out that the Pennsylvania House hasn’t used paper amendments for decades. However, he raised concerns about social media’s influence on the legislative process. He noted that platforms like Facebook were becoming forums where members aired grievances about other members, including the speaker and caucus leaders.
A push for informality is taking hold in the legislative environment. From dress codes to communications and codes of conduct, the panelists observed that more members have been willing to challenge some of the long-standing norms and customs of their institutions. Myers noted that informality on the floor is “the biggest change I’ve seen and [one] that I try to fight against.”
“We’ve had so much turnover in our body that we don’t have those senior members that have that institutional knowledge to help guide the members along the way,” Novak said. She noted the important role clerks, secretaries and parliamentarians play in “[sharing] why tradition is not archaic, why it’s important, and [creating] a teachable moment out of it.”
Explaining the wide range of important institutional duties for which clerks, secretaries and parliamentarians are responsible is vital. The breadth of tasks described by the panel can elude new and old members alike, as well as the public. “The vast majority of what we do, they don’t see,” Kannarr said. When asked to describe one thing that she wished other people understood about the role clerks, secretaries and parliamentarians play in the legislative environment, Novak answered, “the amount of time we invest into preparing for floor sessions” and “how we’re pulled in so many different directions,” adding that “the complexity of our roles” is often misunderstood. Dixon wished that “people could just shadow me for a day, so they could understand why it took me an hour to get back to them about something.”
As technology, decorum and public interactions in legislative environments change, it will be as important as ever for parliamentary rule-makers and managers to preserve institutional processes and carry them into a new era.
Matthew Sullivan is an intern in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.