Rep. Anne Donahue: What really happened with House quorum vote Wednesday

This article was updated 6:05 a.m. Saturday.

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of an email report Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, a member of the House Rules Committee, sent to her constituents.

Non-spoiler alert: this next section is going to get deep into the weeds of inner workings of House processes, so unless you are a person fascinated by process, you might want to stop reading now. The big explosion last week in the House made for splashy news coverage, but the real story was far murkier than the headlines suggested. But if detailed machinations of politics intrigue you, then I wrote this for you.

As a member of the House Rules Committee, I was deeply involved in the challenging discussions about shifting our entire legislative process from the House chamber to a system of remote participation and voting for 150 members. Once it became clear that we would not be able to return to Montpelier and go about business as usual in a week, or even a month, conversations began about those alternatives.

Our state constitution itself says that the General Assembly shall not reconvene “to any other place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting,” and that, “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.”

state of Vermont

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield

In order to meet through remote technology, we had to temporarily amend our House operating rules, and do so in a way that upheld not only the words of the constitution, but also our own oaths taken as stewards of a representative democracy. Would it even be possible to debate bills, question other members, offer amendments, and vote – in short, to do our jobs representing our constituents — from a computer screen?

Within the Rules Committee, a divide emerged. The four Democrats, headed by the House Speaker, believed that technology was more than adequate to the challenge, and we should be able to handle any business at hand. We would be “conducting our business” from the House floor, as required, but participating from afar.

The three Republicans believed that debate and representation would be seriously impaired. We agreed that there were critical bills that had to be addressed, and that it would be a public health issue to meet in person, but felt that remote proceedings should be regarded as a limited emergency response only to address essential bills.

The phone conference on Tuesday last more than five hours, and at one point, it seemed that we were stalemated, because the Speaker was not willing for the resolution effectuating an emergency rules change to be limited in any way in terms of the number or type of bills that would be voted on remotely.

So why not just outvote the Republicans, and push the change through on a 4-3 committee vote to bring it to the House floor?

The problem was that we needed to reach consensus: 100% consensus among the entire 150-member House. No one wanted the entire House to reconvene for a vote on the two issues that were in front of us (the rules change, and the COVID-19 bill), given the status of the coronavirus spread. Yet we could not change the rules to vote remotely without a vote to do it, on the House floor.

There is a technical way to proceed – assuming complete consensus. A quorum is assumed to exist if no member rises to challenge whether there is a quorum. But if it is challenged, then members must be counted, and at least 76 of 150 must be present.

We have never, in my years there, actually taken action without a quorum. We sometimes have what is termed a “token session.” We schedule to meet on a Monday (when the legislature is usually closed) in order to move the notice calendar and not lose a day. The House is gaveled to order, and is immediately gaveled out. Only the one person gaveling needs to be there, but it results in moving the bills from the notice calendar to the action calendar for Tuesday.

By longstanding tradition, one other person always attends: a representative of the minority party for that session. That is because if there was no one present to ask the magic question – “Madam/Mister Speaker, do we have a quorum?” – then in fact, that single presiding member could pass a whole stack of bills. The quorum, unchallenged, is assumed and the actions are valid.

In the extraordinary circumstances we faced this past week, we needed to take a vote about changing the rule to permit remote voting, yet wanted to act without an actual quorum in order to avoid having a large group of people gathering in Montpelier to vote. Thus, the only way to achieve it was that full degree of consensus. So, we kept looking for a way to reach agreement. The Speaker remained adamant about not limiting what bills could be addressed by remote vote, and I knew we had members who would never support an unrestricted rule change. (And I was among them.)

The Speaker was convinced that after some trial runs, in a few weeks when we had the first of our new bills ready for a vote, members would become comfortable with the technology and feel confident in their ability to meet their constitutional obligations. Voting to make the change this week, however, would in effect make it irreversible on the part of any minority members who remained unpersuaded. Yet not voting this week would mean having to convene again, even if only a few people.

I proposed a compromise: vote this week with the members “in person” (unofficially present, for the non-quorum vote) to authorize a later vote in which everyone could participate remotely, and which would ratify the rule change as long as ¾ of the members agreed. In that way, the Speaker would have the opportunity to have practice sessions proceed but not have to return for a vote later, because the ratification vote would be authorized to be, itself, a remote vote.

Even though the resolution would still have no limitations on the type of bills that might be addressed by remote voting, I felt the ¾ vote would protect those who were most worried about the ability to function fully, because it would require far more than a simple majority to force the change upon them later.There was pushback to make it a 2/3rds vote, but I was not willing to go further.

I knew that left me with having to convince those members in my caucus that this was enough protection for them that they would agree to proceed with passing the resolution this week. Otherwise, any one person could block the compromise by showing up and asking whether there was a quorum.

(I warned you that this report was deep into the weeds of process. But it was more than process. Core constitutional principles were also at stake.) It was now Tuesday evening, and in fact the Speaker’s email to all members to explain this brand-new proposal did not go out until just after midnight, with the House scheduled to convene (without a quorum) and vote at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

“What she did, the Speaker said, was to “put principle above public health.” Perhaps. But then again, maybe the health risk was not overwhelming given that the 80 or so members that quickly assembled were able to spread across all points of the large chamber and then leave again quickly after the vote.”

We had, of course, ended up with a proposal to enact a resolution that would authorize a remote vote on the issue of whether we could vote remotely. I didn’t think of it in exactly that way, but it was the actual effect.For one member, this whole series of events crossed a line of any acceptable or constitutional process.

So, when the dozen or so of us gathered in the House chambers to vote – acting on the faith of those who accepted what we were going to do on their behalf – that member stood up and asked, “Madam Speaker, do we have a quorum?”

It stunned everyone, because there was no warning that someone was planning to not collaborate in the staged process. It was also a surprise because the objector was a member of the Speaker’s own party. But I know that if I had felt as she did, that we were about to enact a rule that violated my constitutional oath, and to do it without even having a quorum present, I would have done the same thing. In fact, if we had not reached the ¾ vote compromise, it could well have been me, standing there.

This member was publicly lambasted and later penalized (she was demoted from her committee) for placing the public health at risk by forcing a quorum of legislators to come from across the state to gather in the chamber and vote.

What she did, the Speaker said, was to “put principle above public health.” Perhaps. But then again, maybe the health risk was not overwhelming given that the 80 or so members that quickly assembled were able to spread across all points of the large chamber and then leave again quickly after the vote.

The day before, the Senate gathered a 17-member quorum in its much smaller chamber to vote on our COVID-19 bills and chose not to authorize remote voting. They will have to return again to vote out any other bills, or for any future rules change. We also did not have to vote for that resolution, at that time or even that day. The Speaker could have reconsidered whether the member’s objections were sound; we could have looked for further compromise. It was her decision to move forward by calling in the troops.

And principle, especially constitutional principle, actually matters, a lot. As someone else noted later, “All too often in times of crisis we are willing to allow our rights to be diminished in the name of safety or expediency.”

Finally, achieving the vote Wednesday did not actually bring about a full solution. The Speaker still will have to convince 3/4 of the membership that they can effectively represent their constituents using remote technology. Otherwise, it will be back to square one to hammer out a new agreement – which will itself require a new, in-person vote.

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13 thoughts on “Rep. Anne Donahue: What really happened with House quorum vote Wednesday

  1. Hocus Pocus much? Respectfully suggest you go back to Wizardry 101 drawing board. And suggest you need a new crystal balI – mine works great. I for one am not fooled by manipulation of the facts. And this is not about Cynthia Browning supposed ‘surprise’ quorum call – which was no surprise. It’s all about not letting a good crisis go to waste and full frontal assault on the us all, VT constitution, and a rules change shoehorned into the process via ‘tradition’ which you have stated should rule the day. Allowing a Stalinesque version of VT legislature of meeting in the darkness of phone and computer generated ‘quorum’ to prevail w/limited media – if any. Epic fail.

    And no Ms Browning did not “possibly”endanger the public – there are ppl who must work in close quarters all over VT to provide needed services – you can too.

    Positioning self in Brownings shoes me-too attempt to share her heroism – that ship sailed when you aided and abetted speaker Mitzi Pelosi in the scheme to forever change the face of legislative oversight here in VT. Constitution mandates the doors be open whenever state house is in session – therefore the options here were:
    – Drop the offending article – that is the rules change
    – Constitutionally mandated quorum meet under strict precautions w/ media present and abide by the state-mandated safety distancing
    – Come up w/a budget, only pass necessary legislation and close the statehouse

    Disingenuous attempt to conceal the truth in plain sight doesn’t work. And comes on the heels of VPR story:
    Rep. Browning Defends Her Quorum Call: ‘I Take Democracy Very, Very Seriously’
    By Henry Epp • Mar 26, 2020
    https://www.vpr.org/post/rep-browning-defends-her-quorum-call-i-take-democracy-very-very-seriously
    From the story:
    – “…It says that we’re gonna do remote voting and we’re going to ratify doing remote voting by remote voting. And we don’t have remote voting.”
    – Mizi Pelosi’s initial tantrum:
    …”Speaker chose to do the resolutions first. So that was when I called for the quorum. If she had dropped that resolution, I would not have objected to any of the other bills that were there. But she wanted that resolution. So she chose to call people in. I did not call people in.”
    – Deception in AD account -missing the entire fact of the matter – CB communicated w/house leadership and was ignored:
    “Well, I told them, I told a member of leadership on Monday that I did not support their plans and what they were doing. None of them ever got back to me. It was actually only after they finalized the rule about the remote proceedings on Tuesday night that I realized how concerned I was, and I needed to research it. And then things just kind of unfolded.”

    Another epic fail courtesy of the haughty and clearly out of touch cult of the Domedwellers who cannot seem to effectively legislate or do anything meaningful for the sane normal ppl of VT and should in fact be canned for legislative malpractice.

  2. “I am aware that at times some of my bi-weekly legislative updates emailed directly to constituents have been copied by various other organizations. If this occurred with a recent update of mine (I am not aware of it, one way or the other), it was not through a submission from me, and I do not think that would constitute my being a “commentator” — a description which implies an active, intentional contributor.” Seven Days – Posted by Anne Donahue on 04/03/2020 at 1:49 PM

    Wait a minute. It’s time for someone to come clean. Was this article submitted by Rep. Anne Donahue, or wasn’t it?

    • This piece was written by me, but I did not submit it as a commentary to True North. It was a public piece, in that my bi-weekly constituent update is sent out broadly by email, and is also sent to the Northfield News for publication. However, I think that any outlet that chooses to republish something, as True North did, should indicate its source (for instance stating, “this is a reprint of an email report that Rep. Donahue sent to her constituents”) rather than simply calling it a commentary and portraying it as if it was submitted directly for publication. I was not aware that it was reprinted here until seeing the reference in Seven Days today, and looking it up this evening.

      • Thank you for your comment, Representative Donahue. TNR has updated the editor’s note as you have recommended. Also, at TNR, our content is classified as either news, commentary, letters or videos, and nothing else is intended to be portrayed or implied by those general category listings. Since we do occasionally reprint legislative communications from lawmakers to constituents, we will make an effort to provide a more detailed note in the future.

  3. Boy that’s rich, all of a sudden they are concerned about how well the constituents will be represented!
    That’s got to be a first, usually we aren’t even thought of. They just do whatever suits them and to hell with what we the people think! HA!

  4. The Speaker’s vitriolic rant about “principle versus public health” in a conspicuous attempt to justify her own unnecessary & heavy handed action was belied by the Senate’s nonhysterical quorum the day before. Moreover, underreported in the Speaker’s subsequent vindictive removal of Browning from Ways & Means is the obvious intentional harm to a declared challenger for the House speakership. Abuse of power?

  5. Thank you Anne Donahue, great explanation of what happened. Too bad the Speaker had to react like D. Trump. Revenge is a dish best served cold, not in the heat of the moment.

  6. Putting principle above public health? So, the ends justify the means in our Machiavellian legislature. No surprise there. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’

    The first mistake, Rep. Donahue, is trusting your adversaries in the legislature to act as you would like us to believe ‘tradition’ dictates. FYI – the word ‘tradition’ is non-existent in the VT Constitution. The word ‘shall’, on the other hand, has legal force and effect.

    Apparently, many Vermonters clearly don’t understand that our political system, like our judicial system, is adversarial for good reason – maintaining checks and balances. But second, and more importantly, relying on ‘tradition’ alone (perceived or otherwise) is a breach of legislative responsibility. Always, ‘Trust but Verify’.

    I would like to know the name of the member who dissented to the Speaker’s shenanigans. They are to be thanked and supported.

  7. I am very grateful to Anne Donahue for explaining what happened. I would never have understood this without her article. Cynthia Browning has some backbone. Good for her.

    • She certainly does and is by far one of the sharpest pencils under the bubble. It would be a shame to loose her even as an adversary.

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