Washington Lawmakers Haven’t Figured Out How to Conduct a Floor Debate on Zoom Yet

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Gonna be ghost house this winter, for the most part.

Gonna be ghost house next year, for the most part. LESTER BLACK

Washington Republicans and some Democrats who want to perform their willingness to “do something” keep pressuring Governor Jay Inslee to call a special session, ostensibly so lawmakers can hammer out some kind of woefully insufficient COVID-19 relief package.

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This impulse sounds good and noble, but it’s dumb for a couple reasons. First off, there is an outside chance Democrats will take control of the U.S. Senate in January, which would dramatically increase the chances of a federal bailout. If the legislature meets tomorrow, however, then lawmakers will have to assume no more money will come from the feds and then start filling budget holes by cutting programs people rely on. While making big cuts is a huge kink for Republicans, 2008 taught us that austerity budgeting will lead to a longer, slower, more painful economic recovery, and we should do everything we can to avoid making the same mistake again.

But a major mechanical issue also troubles the prospect of a special session: lawmakers haven’t ironed out the process for passing bills remotely yet. So even if they could meet, the quality of the work they could even accomplish remains an open question.

At this point we’ve all come face-to-completely-frozen-face with the limitations of video conferencing in the workplace. And though the glitchy conferencing tools make remotely meeting in small groups and delivering presentations pretty painless, trying digitally to recreate a statehouse setting presents a big challenge. A lot of lawmaking is relational, and a lot of brisk business gets done in the hallways. And the actual business of debate and voting happens in a giant congregate setting. None of that easily translates to Zoom.

For the last several months, tech staff at the Capitol have been training 147 different politicians who possess 147 different levels of comfort with technology how to legislate remotely. So far, the Senate has produced one eight-page document with guidelines for in-person remote work. The House has yet to do the same, but staff and lawmakers say one is forthcoming. In general, things are going about as well as you’d expect.

One thing tripping up some lawmakers is the use of multiple platforms. To avoid security issues associated with Zoom, legislators will use Microsoft Teams when they caucus, but they’ll use Zoom for committee meetings and floor action. Going back and forth between those two systems, as well as another system used for voting, is causing some initial confusion.

Another thing tripping people up is just the pure mechanics of effectively participating in very large meetings.

On October 22, Sen. Karen Keiser, who presides over the state Senate as President Pro Tempore, led a mock floor debate to test out the new remote systems lawmakers will need to master by January.

Keiser stood at the daises before a couple screens—one for voting and another with a Zoom meeting featuring all 49 Senators (or their staff, at least). After everyone worked out their connection and volume issues, she started running through the motions of introducing a bill. Everything was going fine, if not exactly smoothly, until a staff member standing in for Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler tried to object. Since the staffer had no way to unmute themselves, they couldn’t perform the routine interruption, and Keiser couldn’t otherwise see the staffer’s attempts to draw her attention.

“I still don’t know how I will do that, because they don’t have a red light or something that goes on to say someone is objecting,” she said. “We have 49 senators, and it’s just hard to scan 49 faces and see who wants to talk, because you’re looking at postage-stamp-sized faces… It’s really all quite—what’s the word?—befuddling.”

In general, Kaiser said the system in place doesn’t yet account for any sort of unplanned action, such as a Senator standing up for a point of personal privilege or standing up for an objection. She’s also unsure how to conduct more arcane procedures, such as a call of the Senate, which leaders use to compel attendance. “How would you arrest them?” she said, laughing.

Kaiser expects this issue will cause a lot of problems, especially during debates over controversial bills.

Senate staff said the October meeting amounted to the body’s second large-scale mock session. The first one happened on June 24, and there have been “a bunch of others that haven’t been as big as those two.” And yet still we have problems.

Kaiser felt confident LegTech staff was working on these communication issues, but she felt just as confident that floor action in the upcoming session will be slow and bumpy. “We will get a budget passed. I’m not sure what else will get done,” she added, half-jokingly.

If running a show with 49 Senators presents some challenges, dealing with double that number of members over in the House creates the opportunity for major communication snafus as well.

Rep. Tina Orwall, the Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore, said House members have held smaller mock sessions with around 20 lawmakers over the past few months.

Starting up the system with that many members took some time, she said, but after everyone dealt with their personal connectivity issues and their audio/visual problems “it worked pretty smoothly.” A couple members struggled to cast votes, she added, but staff was able to step in and troubleshoot.

Whether or not more problems arise when all 98 members log on for a full-scale mock session remains a pretty predictable mystery, but she’ll know more after she presides over her first one in December.

Since processing bills will likely take so long, this year Senators and Representatives won’t submit “companion bills” to their respective bodies, which will reduce the number of pathways a given piece of legislation can take to become law. Partly for this reason, though the need to address major problems in the state couldn’t be greater, both Kaiser and Orwall expect far fewer bills to pass in 2021.

On average during odd years, the legislature passes around 460 bills. Kaiser said she’d “honestly be surprised if we get 200 bills passed.”

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As a result, bills unrelated to COVID-19 relief, police reform, transportation, and behavioral health will probably get pushed back to 2022.

Adhering to physical distancing guidelines could also make communicating effectively with lawmakers about those bills a little trickier for white hat and black hat lobbyists. Both chambers will hold public testimony remotely this year, which will probably broaden access to the process across the state, but then committee chairs will “decide the order and length” of testimony based on the number of participants. Advocates might only end up getting a minute to speak during a hearing if many people sign up for a controversial bill. Kaiser encouraged advocates to organize ahead of time and present their case as a panel.

But other than all that, everything should work out just fine.

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