Md. Lawmakers Take First Steps Toward Remote Meeting, Voting

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) in Annapolis in March 2020. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

With members of Congress locked in a debate over proxy voting, a rule change that would allow out-of-town lawmakers to participate remotely under limited circumstances, the COVID-19 crisis has also led leaders of the Maryland General Assembly to begin discussions about potential changes to their meeting and voting procedures, Maryland Matters has learned.

The discussions are early and no decisions have been made, an official said, but the conversations reflect a realization that the legislature must be in a position to function even if lawmakers are unable to get to or work in Annapolis safely.

On Monday, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) cancelled tentative plans to have the legislature convene in late May for a special session. They have not ruled out holding a special session later in the year, but nothing is scheduled.

In a statement to Maryland Matters on Tuesday, Ferguson and Jones said, “We have been assessing all of the legal and technical issues to ensure the General Assembly can meet its Constitutional obligations. Even in the face of a global pandemic, we have a responsibility to the people of Maryland who elect us.”

This year’s regular legislative session ended on March 18, 2 1/2 weeks earlier than scheduled, because of growing fears about COVID-19 and the wisdom of having 188 legislators, staff, security personnel and journalists bunched together in the State House.

Members of the public — including lobbyists — were banned from the State House during the final days of the 2020 session, a decision that leaders defended on public health grounds but which generated significant pushback from open meetings and good government advocates.

Those who have studied continuity in government issues say legislative bodies at all levels need to be prepared for a wide array of potential events — including some that may seem far-fetched and therefore easy to dismiss.

Lawmakers, for instance, need to consider how they would function if weather made travel impossible, the destruction of their meeting place, civil unrest, and how to deal with a pandemic that made it impossible to have a quorum in either chamber, for starters.

While technology has evolved to the point where groups can convene remotely, the laws governing the Maryland legislature (and in most states) have not kept up.

With scant exception, county councils and municipal bodies across Maryland migrated to the web last month to comply with state-issued restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar and author who led a national commission on continuity of government at the federal level a decade ago, said officials at all levels need to step up their planning for unexpected crises.

“The coronavirus has shown us now what can happen if you don’t have plans in place for catastrophe,” Ornstein said.

Last month, in The Atlantic, Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., warned that “we could end up with members of Congress scattered around the country, transportation shut off, many of them incapacitated, and we don’t have any way of doing a remote session, remote votes, or even have committees that could meet and hold hearings.”

“And you’ve got to start working on that,” he added. “And they didn’t.”

The commission Ornstein headed issued a three-volume set of recommendations in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The panel’s warnings and advice have been ignored by the nation’s federal leaders.

“I was very hopeful back in 2001 that it was enough of a jolt that we could get some movement from all three branches,” Ornstein said in an interview. “And it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in part because there’s inertia. Once the crisis passes, it’s easy to just think ‘we’ll deal with that another time.’”

On Tuesday, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) endorsed proposals to allow remote committee work and voting.

In a letter to key committee chairmen, Hoyer wrote: “The coronavirus pandemic has presented new challenges for how Congress conducts its work, and it’s clear that we need to update our procedures accordingly.”

“I strongly support remote voting and allowing Committees to hold markups and hearings in a transparent way so that the American people can see that we are continuing to do our work,” he added.

Hoyer said he has asked House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) “to consider my recommendations so that we can ensure Members of the House can do their jobs safely and effectively.”

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