Editor’s note: This commentary is by Deb Billado, chairwoman of the Vermont GOP.
The coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on our way of life at every point, including on how we do government. There is, however, no need with this temporary crisis we are facing, to reshape how government has always worked, and especially how new laws are enacted.
Vermont House and Senate Committees have been meeting remotely to deliberate during the coronavirus outbreak. Now some want to allow “remote voting” where lawmakers can vote on bills and resolutions without being present together in their legislative session to do that. Surely the framers of our Vermont Constitution could never have envisioned legislators being able to vote without meeting under the Golden Dome to do it for they declared [in Chapter II, § 7 BIENNIAL SESSIONS] that “the General Assembly shall meet biennially.” They did not say that they could phone in, or yell back and forth over the back fence. They were to meet.
Then again, no one could have ever imagined such a threat as we are now facing. This is an enemy we cannot see, and we must take steps to protect ourselves. If there is to be any action taken by the Legislature, it must be limited to that absolutely needed to counter this threat and to keep the government functioning. However, there is no way that remote voting should be allowed on the mundane and non-critical matters that hundreds and hundreds of bills in the Legislature contain. Not only is it probably unconstitutional if they were to do that, but it would just be wrong, and would subject the citizens to more control by a super-majority liberal Democrat dominated Legislature that will now be able to operate under the radar with even less accountability than they are subject to now.
Many, especially those without adequate broadband, painfully remember through decades the unkept promises of past governors to have functioning broadband coverage for all of Vermont “in the near future.” That condition persists in many parts of Vermont today. For those people, they will be unable to interact with their representatives the way they could by jumping in their car and coming to Montpelier.
If it is deemed necessary to do budgetary work or matters that address the Covid-19 pandemic, that should be the limit of legislative action. The other stuff can wait. Vermont should postpone such other lawmaking until safe and not try to do a rework of our two-plus-century-old system for this short time, for such will be fraught with dangers, failures and potential abuse of power, loss of transparency and accountability, ultimately doing harm to those the lawmakers are sworn to represent and do good things for. Once the emergency is lifted, things can and should get back to normal.
Consider further that our founding document declares [Chapter II § 8. DOORS OF GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO BE OPEN] “The doors of the House in which the General Assembly of this Commonwealth shall sit, shall be open for the admission of all persons who behave decently, except only when the welfare of the State may require them to be shut.” There is no question that right now there may be a need to keep those doors shut temporarily, but we should not allow those of the supermajority to pass laws out of the sight and sound of many of the citizens who will be most adversely affected, except in the most critical areas of budget and the pandemic crisis. Except for that it is time for them to step down temporarily when those doors to where legislators “sit” are temporarily closed. Nothing will be lost by them doing that.
To allow for the Legislature to finalize bills that will become the law of our state, considering this and the rights given those in that situation under Chapter I Article 20 [Right to assemble, instruct and petition] would be wrong and unconstitutional. “That the people have a right to assemble together to consult for their common good — to instruct their Representatives — and to apply to the Legislature for redress of grievances, by address, petition or remonstrance.” Such rights are meaningless if the legislature could, outside the bounds of procedure established in the Vermont Constitution, declare a new way that would infringe on the rights guaranteed by that document. Under Chapter II § 6 [LEGISLATIVE POWERS] the Legislature has the power to do many things, but “they shall have no power to add to, alter, abolish or infringe any part of this Constitution.”
All too often in times of crisis we are willing to allow our rights to be diminished in the name of safety or expediency. Absolutely we should be practicing social distancing, but I suggest that our legislators should practice bill passing distancing as well. Just as citizens must go out of our homes to do certain things during the crisis, such as acquiring food or medical treatment, so too should our Legislature be guided by that approach of necessity. They should do things only when they are essential. No one wants to have their plans put aside, but this could well be the time to listen instead of acting. Our own Calvin Coolidge was quoted as saying, “It takes a great man to be a good listener.” The wounds inflicted on our people and their economy by this virus will have consequences that no one can now imagine, so now is not the time to pass bills into law without taken those consequences into consideration and we just do not know now. A wise Legislature would call “time out” and listen and watch so they will be prepared to do good when they return to their chambers to “sit” where citizens can come to constitutionally “consult” and “instruct their representatives.”
We must not break the mold of lawmaking that has endured for centuries in Vermont — for once you do, how easy will it be for those in power to find excuses to do it again and again. While we must take the proper steps to protect the public, there are ways that can happen without reworking our way of doing governing. The governor has powers to deal with much of what is needed, so whatever we do, we should go slowly and give this crisis the needed time to resolve. If legislative action is needed for critical reasons, it should be done only when there is concurrence with the governor’s office and is subject to judicial review.
For now, please stay home and stay safe.