Assembly Democrats are demanding legislators be allowed to attend floor sessions and other meetings remotely as Republicans signal they will require lawmakers to conduct much of their business in person during the upcoming legislative session, even as the coronavirus pandemic persists into 2021.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, indicated on Tuesday that the Assembly may no longer allow remote accommodations, representing a rollback of COVID-19 accommodations allowed during much of the pandemic.
“People all across Wisconsin safely go to work every day and members of the Assembly are capable of doing so as well,” he said in a statement. “The Assembly will convene safely as other legislatures across the country have done during the pandemic. Members and staff are being asked to follow CDC guidelines, practice social distancing, wear a mask and wash their hands frequently.”
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, and other Democratic members told Vos on Tuesday they want the chamber to continue current Assembly accommodations into the next session, such as remote-work options for staff and the ability for lawmakers to join floor sessions and committee hearings and sessions virtually.
First, Vos is right. People all over the state are going to work every day. They are doing so safely. We pay these legislators a full time wage and we, as citizens, have a reasonable expectation for them to put on pants and go to work. Perhaps they should lead by example for the rest of the state.
Second, there is value in doing this in person. Many of us have shifted to a more virtual work style through 2020. There are some good sides like saving on clothes/commuting expenses, save time between meetings, can squeeze more work into the day with that time savings, etc, but we also lose a lot without conducting business in person. Those hallway chats can be productive. Eating lunch together or helping a colleague dig their car out of the snow develops relationships. The infamous “grab a drink after work” builds rapport. Being able to read someone’s body language helps facilitate understanding. Humans are natural social animals and conducting complex negotiations successfully requires all of the senses to do it successfully. By being virtual, the Assembly is robbed of the social dynamic and people retreat into their virtual castles of dogma. The isolation of a virtual environment promotes distrust, linear thinking, and fear. Working with people on a screen is not the same as doing it in person. They become avatars instead of people.
These people are making massive decisions that impact the lives of millions. It is not asking too much for them to go to work to conduct the business of the realm.