As the New Hampshire House convened in Manchester on Thursday, lawmakers picked up an urgent pace. Hoping to avoid a snowstorm that blanketed much of the state on Friday, they rushed through the bills, tabling them where they could and limiting debate to avoid coming the next day. .
This story was first published by the New Hampshire Bulletin.
Representative Katherine Rogers had a more compelling reason to hurry. The Concord Democrat has been battling uterine cancer for almost a year and she was due to have another round of chemotherapy on Friday. Zooming in from his hospital bed was not an option.
Months after starting his cancer treatment, Rogers had decided to show up in the House on voting days anyway – Wednesday and Thursday – receiving clearance from doctors who told him to hide.
“I’ve always lived my life this way,” she said in a hallway interview. “You take precautions; you do everything you can to avoid putting yourself at unnecessary risk. But it is a profession that I have chosen: to be in politics.
His decision touched a bigger dilemma that continued to bitterly divide lawmakers. Two years after the start of a pandemic that has proven dangerous for older and immunocompromised lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats are unable to agree on whether or how to allow remote participation in deliberations from the room.
Legislative leaders tried out a litany of spacious, in-person venues, from the University of New Hampshire Whittemore Center hockey arena under the leadership of Democratic President Steve Shurtleff, to an outdoor UNH field hockey field in December 2020, to a drive-in-style parking lot the following month, at an indoor sports complex in Bedford throughout 2021.
Last week, the Legislature tried out a new home: a large conference room at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Manchester. More than 350 representatives walked into the hotel’s multi-story parking lot and filtered through the hallways to a bright room with seats and microphones.
The ordeal was largely familiar at this point. Lawmakers used remote-controlled voting devices, connected to computers up front. The speakers approached the standing microphones and faced the speaker in the House. Professional cameramen under contract with the Chamber recorded the proceedings and broadcast them to the public, which was not permitted in the room. Lawmakers broke for lunch served in cardboard boxes and took cigarette breaks outside hotel doors. Some lawmakers carried suitcases, taking advantage of the venue and checking into rooms.
“It makes it much easier not to have to drive an hour and a half,” said Representative Suzanne Smith, a Democrat from Hebron who had booked two nights at the hotel.
In an early vote on Wednesday – one of the first of the new year – Democratic lawmakers called for a change in House rules to allow the ability to participate remotely in House plenary sittings. Democrats, like Rep. Lucy Weber from Walpole, have presented the rule change as a first step, a regulatory hurdle to overcome before designing a remote voting system. Republicans, such as Vice President Steven Smith of Charlestown, called the rule change premature and initially asked Democrats for a detailed implementation plan.
Ultimately, the effort failed, 169-186, according to party lines. But Democrats say they haven’t finished pleading.
Citing a November 2020 Supreme Court advisory opinion that said the House can redefine the “quorum” as determined by the state’s constitution and pass rules to allow remote participation, Democrats argued that nothing prevented the organ from acting. A separate Democrats legal fight to force remote participation continues in federal court. And a healthcare advocacy group circulated a petition calling for expanded remote participation options in House and Senate hearings.
For Weber, the fight is not limited to the pandemic.
“If we want an inclusive process, where representatives represent all paths (and) stations of life, then we must make arrangements that enable people with disabilities, people raising young children, people who have other obstacles to being able to serve, “Weber said.” And so participation at a distance, outside of something like COVID, allows for broader participation and it also allows for infinitely greater participation of our citizens. “
Republicans, meanwhile, gave different reasons for not supporting remote participation. For some, like Smith, it’s a logistical problem, and one that will only be solved by a detailed technological plan that did not materialize.
But for many of Smith’s colleagues, the opposition is more fundamental.
“No. If you don’t want to come and vote in person, you can’t vote,” said Rep. Susan Delemus, Republican from Rochester.
This sentiment is strongly felt by many on the Republican side. And the Conservatives have their own campaign for President Sherman Packard: send lawmakers back to the representative room.
“We have freshmen who were elected and who did not have a session at State House,” said Rep. Keith Ammon, a Republican from New Boston. “They didn’t sit in their seats at the State House. They don’t have the experience. That historic moment where you walk up the steps and sit in your seat, you know? “
Ammon also argues that off-site meetings, in which lawmakers are kept away from reporters, lobbyists and members of the public, have removed the sense of immediate responsibility on the part of lawmakers that accompanies the gravity of the representative room.
Ammon and others are pushing Packard to make the switch as soon as possible. Still, even Ammon says the decision could be at the whim of the omicron COVID-19 variant that continues to spread across the state.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” he said.
A big gap
For now, the status quo – meeting in person but away from the narrow confines of the State House – has persisted. But peace between the parties remained precarious.
Responding to a social media report alleging that a lawmaker said she tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, Representative William Marsh, a Democrat from Brookfield, brought the charge to the House. Packard immediately responded forcefully, pointing to the quick tests leaders handed out to lawmakers ahead of the vote.
“If there is anyone in this room who has tested positive, I say right away” to leave the room, Packard said, in remarks clouded by problems in the steam service. “We sent these tests for a reason.”
It was a rare moment of unity on a health crisis with little common ground. But without surprise breakthroughs in communication between Republicans and Democrats, no one on either side expects much to change. Meetings will continue in spaced out places, in a boardroom or another, until the vision on one side of the best way to meet prevails.
House Leadership emailed members on Sunday notifying them that two participants in the voting sessions had tested positive for COVID-19. The president’s office had directly informed the identified close contacts of those members, the email said.
“Please maintain a high degree of vigilance as community transmission rates continue to be high statewide,” the email reads. “Please watch your symptoms and stay home if you are sick. “
As they continue to push to allow remote participation, Democrats recognize that the ultimate decision to stay or leave each site is in the hands of one person.
“I’m talking to the speaker and know he is very anxious to get back to Reps Hall as soon as possible,” Shurtleff said. “And I know he’s under a lot of pressure from his caucus. … But to the speaker’s credit, he puts the safety of the members (first).
Late in Thursday’s meeting, the mood deteriorated further. Towards the end of the proceedings, Rogers made a motion from his wheelchair to seek unanimous consent to respond to the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots and to thank the chamber for its support throughout his illness. But Republican members called for a vote to revoke unanimous consent, and Rogers’ speech was cut short before it began.
Minutes later, lawmakers marched through the halls, circled the DoubleTree parking lot, and drove away.
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