The end of Minnesota’s legislative session in May didn’t feel right. The normal crush of deal-making and backslapping was simply absent from the floor. “Usually at the end of session, the legislature here is boisterous and funny,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) says. “The House floor has a slight odor of Chinese food and people who have been awake too long and stale coffee. All of that is missing.”
The reason, of course, was the social distancing restrictions meant to keep members and staff safe. Rather than the usual couple hundred or so people crowding the chamber, attendance was limited to no more than 20 people at a time. A week before the session ended, a Minnesota Senate staffer tested positive for the novel coronavirus. In March, an aide on the House side was presumed positive.
Despite the restrictions and altered atmosphere, however, the session was productive. Lawmakers addressed not only the immediate health response, economic woes and their newfound budget problems, but also crafted new policies in areas such as tobacco regulation and the backlog of untested rape kits. “We’re actually getting a lot of stuff done,” Hortman said one night as the session was winding down. “Yesterday, we passed nine bills and eight of them are going to be signed into law.”
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman. Courtesy Minnesota House of Representatives/photo by Paul Battaglia
Every legislature’s—indeed, each legislator’s—experience during the pandemic has been different. Yet chamber leaders across the country tell similar stories. They are trying to coordinate with their governors while coping with budgets that suddenly went from sound to sapped. They are trying to communicate with caucuses that have been scattered away from the capitol. They are continually helping to address constituent requests and putting out fires.
In short, even though most legislatures either adjourned or postponed sessions in response to COVID-19, leaders are never off the clock. Their days are long blurs of conference calls, Zoom meetings and media appearances. Leaders are representing their chambers in discussions and troubleshooting sessions with state health departments, hospitals, business owners and city and county officials. All the while, a flood of emails keeps coming in from lobbyists.
“I really like to keep up with those things myself, but the volume is overwhelming,” Colorado House Speaker KC Becker (D) says.
Days are long, but less formal. There’s not much need to wear a suit when you’re working from home, Becker says. Many leaders are glad to be able to spend more time with their families, even if they have to shoo kids from the room while they’re doing videoconference calls.
But as the months have passed, lawmakers have changed their focus. During the first several weeks of the pandemic, anything not COVID-related was put on pause. More recently, as in Minnesota, legislatures are addressing other vital issues, such as criminal justice, housing and the environment.
Finding a New Normal
Even as they cope with worsening budgets, legislators are trying to think beyond short-term problems toward more distant opportunities and challenges. Everyone is concerned with how to get people back to work. The Washington Senate has created a committee devoted to economic recovery—not just reopening following government-ordered shutdowns but fostering a better climate for years to come. “They’re going to convene work sessions and hearings with thought leaders and economists and look at other states to see how we help this long-term recovery to make sure people are safe, but also we return to prosperity,” Majority Leader Andy Billig (D) says.
No one thinks the nation is out of the woods. With every state operating under federal disaster declarations, we’re in uncharted territory. How we respond, Wyoming House Speaker Steve Harshman (R) says, will determine what sort of future we have. But there will be a future. “You can spend a little time on pity, but you’ve got to get out of this and get moving,” he says. “There’s a lot of empathy and a lot of hope.”
Harshman notes that people are learning new skills, while government—legislatures included—has learned to function virtually. “We’re still going to be a state 20 years from now and 100 years from now,” he says. “We’ve been knocked down and when we come out of this, we’re going to try to come out stronger.”
Just as the Indiana House was ending its session in March, Todd Huston (R) took over from Brian Bosma (R), the longtime speaker. Huston jokes that while Bosma offered him advice, he never warned him that coping with the fallout from a global pandemic would be part of the job. “I was like everybody else—I was dumb enough to think I had an idea of what I needed to do,” Huston says. “There is no playbook. You go with the flow and figure it out.”
I was dumb enough to think I had an idea of what I needed to do. There is no playbook. You go with the flow and figure it out.” —House Speaker Todd Huston, Indiana
Things would normally be quiet after the state’s short session. That isn’t the case this year. Instead of a lull, Huston has been in near-constant contact with the 66 members of his caucus, both individually and in group videoconferences. “It’s given me an opportunity to strengthen relationships with people across my caucus,” he says.
A lot of the talk for leaders has been about constituent service. Untangling bottlenecks people are encountering when filing for unemployment has been a primary concern, but constituents also have issues with housing, procuring personal protective equipment and nursing home safety. New York Senate Whip Kevin Parker (D) sometimes spends part of his day handing out masks in his Brooklyn district. “I’m doing what I’m literally asking everyone else to do,” he says. “Look after your neighbors.”
For leaders, it’s not enough to look after neighbors or even their own constituents. They often must cut through red tape for colleagues who encounter problems in their districts that can’t be solved without help from the top. Such requests have become so frequent that offices are finding ways to streamline the process. The Minnesota House, for example, has a constituent service team dealing directly with agencies, so that lawmakers aren’t making separate calls, all in search of the same information. Colorado is taking a centralized approach as well. “We’re trying to set up a lot of calls with agencies,” Becker, the House speaker, says. “That helps them be more efficient, if they can have a single call with all of our members.”
Getting Along With Governors
In the early days of the crisis, legislative leaders, no matter how powerful or influential, recognized that the size of their governor’s bully pulpit had expanded about a thousandfold. While legislators were hunkering down, governors were holding daily briefings and capturing the attention of national media. When the pandemic was in its early days, everyone understood that emergency response falls under the purview of the executive—that for better or worse, the governor would be both the public face of the government’s response and the main decision-maker. “He has so much more authority in areas that he doesn’t have to go through the legislature,” Becker says, referring to Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D). “That’s hard for legislators to adjust to.”
Becker notes that she has largely agreed with Polis’ actions. For many legislators, though, taking a back seat has become harder over time. As the months of crisis dragged on, legislators came to question their governors more often and openly. This was largely but not exclusively a partisan phenomenon. Opposite-party legislators have been more likely to challenge their governors’ authority over questions such as shutdown orders, including filing lawsuits. But leaders who share a party with a governor also have stepped up to question, for instance, how federal relief dollars are being spent.
“We’re all trying find our way about what decisions need to be taken through executive authority and what should be worked through legislation." —House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Minnesota
For the most part, there remains an understanding that the governor’s job is to execute policy, which among other things means responding to a crisis. There’s been legislation in some states to address economic needs and policies such as expanded contact tracing systems. But most leaders understand that governors require considerable leeway. “We’re all trying find our way about what decisions need to be taken through executive authority and what should be worked through legislation,” says Hortman, the Minnesota speaker. “In an emergency, so many decisions have to be made fast. There isn’t time for the legislative process. Bringing people in and finding compromise, that takes time.”
Sessions and Elections
Legislating is normally a high-contact sport. Now, no one’s at the capitol, except legislators, staff and a few reporters.
Leaders have had to figure out ways of managing caucuses remotely. That has included dealing with the rules changes and logistics involved in setting up virtual hearings and votes. It has also meant, when they returned to the capitol, figuring out just how many people can be in their chambers safely at one time. Everyone’s comfort level is different. Some legislators have positioned themselves throughout their capitol buildings, only going into their chamber to vote. Others are voting remotely, texting their yeas and nays to a designated voter on the floor. Still others sit at their desks as usual, close to their neighbors and not wearing masks.
Signs in the Texas Capitol advise visitors about steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Courtesy Texas Media Services
The general decline in contact extends to another pursuit that’s important to leaders: campaigning. Everyone is having to figure out how to contact voters without having actual contact. Rallies may remain on hold through the fall, and voters may be reluctant to answer their doors when a candidate knocks. Fundraising can be a challenge when you can’t do it in person. It’s tricky to ask for money over the phone when the person on the other end might have been laid off. In states where fundraising isn’t allowed during session, extensions of sessions into the summer have been a source of frustration.
Still, most leaders say it will be better this year to be an incumbent than a challenger who faces many of the same hurdles but probably isn’t as well known. “An emergency is actually a good political time for incumbents, because it gives you a chance to demonstrate your leadership,” Parker, the New York Senate whip, says. “Most of us understand that we’re reelected based on the work we’re doing.”
Part of that work involves handling frequent constituent service requests, but it also means making policy. Some legislatures adjourned this year after dealing solely with the most immediate requirements: the coronavirus, the budget and vetoes. But, while the pandemic still demands attention and revenues everywhere, many lawmakers are eager to tackle other issues. Parker notes that a lot of time spent in session is “political theater,” with deals worked out behind the scenes. That can still happen even when legislators have been exiled from the capitol. “I made efforts to refer all bills to committees before I left the capitol,” says Philip Gunn (R), speaker of the Mississippi House, which suspended its session in March. “I contacted all my chairs and said, ‘While you’re at home, you need to start looking at legislation, which bills you’re going to bring out, which ones you’re not. Let’s use this time wisely. I want to be able to hit the ground running when we get back.’”
Given the amount of time devoted to the coronavirus and plunging budget numbers, leaders are performing more triage than usual. Becker says she relies on the motto “fast, friendly and free” to decide which bills can move. If a bill will cost money or can’t attract near-consensus support, forget about it. “Things that have fiscal notes, no,” she says. “Things that will take a long time, no. Things that are partisan, no.”
Still, the wheels of government must keep turning, despite the long shadow cast by the coronavirus. “There will be an element of COVID-19 in just about every policy we work out,” says Billig, the Washington Senate majority leader. “Its effects have been pervasive and it’s hard to think of a policy area in the state that’s not impacted.”
Billig says there’s a spirit of cooperation and a desire to address the new challenges his state and every other faces. Legislators have been worn out emotionally in recent months, trying to help constituents who have lost their jobs or their businesses or have seen loved ones suffer. Nearly all of them got into the business to help people and to make a difference, however. Their work has never seemed more necessary. “There’s a level of collaboration and understanding among members,” Billig says, “and between elected officials and the public that I have not seen previously.”
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer with Governing.