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Can a Virtual Legislature Be a Real Legislature?

Lawmakers in much of the country will be doing their work next year by remote control. That will make a tough job even tougher.

Colorado state legislature with plastic wrap over the chairs.
Colorado's state assembly under wraps. COVID-19 has put an end to old-fashioned legislating for the time being. (Kidd/Governing)
When America's state legislators begin meeting for their 2021 sessions, the blunt fact is that many of them won't be meeting at all. They will be sitting at Zoom screens, talking on their iPhones and looking for other ways to simulate the bill-writing and deal-making that they are supposed to do face-to-face.

Not all the states have made up their minds yet, and all the plans are subject to change, but it's already clear that there will be at least a fair amount of virus-driven separation. Virginia's House of Delegates expects to hold all of its sessions virtually. Washington's legislature is talking about voting in person but running its hearings and markup sessions by remote control. Vermont will call its lawmakers together once, but only to authorize virtual meetings after that. New Jersey, which actually passed a worker-assistance bill this year entirely by phone, will be doing some of that again. There seems almost no doubt that other states will be following suit.

Will remote-control legislating have a significant effect on the nature and quality of what gets passed? A better question would be, how it could not have a significant effect? Listen to Aubrey Layne, the Virginia state finance director, describe his experience with virtual consideration of serious issues. "I've watched committees where speakers have thirty seconds before they're cut off," Layne told a reporter recently. "This is not the environment to write the budget. Regarding risk and fiduciary responsibility, I might as well talk to the wall."

Legislators in Washington State are less caustic but equally concerned. "It's going to take us more time to process through the same amount of bills as before," says state Sen. Marko Liias. The chamber's majority leader, Andy Billig, feels the same way. "Obviously this is going to be a challenging session," he remarked recently. "So much of what we do is relationship-based."

ONE CAN MAKE A PLAUSIBLE ARGUMENT that relationship-based legislating has already taken a major hit in recent years, both from ethics rules that restrict entertainment and socializing and from the intense partisanship that has kept many of the members all but frozen on their respective sides of the aisle. Lawmakers who meet in session for long periods during the year (and that has been an increasing number of them) tend to have their families with them at the state capitol. Boys-night-out legislating is almost entirely a relic of the fading past.

But notwithstanding those changes, there is a more fundamental point to be made here. All legislative bodies, state, federal and local, need relationships to do their job well. Most of the time they need physical proximity. That doesn't mean lawmakers have to stand together side by side in the thousands, as they did in ancient Athens, to make crucial decisions by majority vote. It does mean they do a better job when they have ordinary conversations, read each other's facial expressions and noodle over crucial policy choices, and that process just isn't the same when they are all at home staring at individual computers.

If I may be permitted a distant digression, I should point out that much of what I know about legislative bodies stems from the work of a largely forgotten mid-20th-century historian, Sir Lewis Namier. The work of Namier was focused on the British Parliament in the 1700s, but when I discovered him I realized his findings were relevant to almost any lawmaking body, anywhere, at any time.

What Namier taught me was that most of the things journalists and academics write about when they study legislatures — speeches, formal reports, interviews with the media, even ideology in most cases — have very little bearing on what the institution actually produces. To understand the workings of a legislature, you need to know about the members themselves, their backgrounds and their personal connections. Which ones belong to families that have longstanding political ties? Which ones went to school together? Which ones had served in the army or navy and which ones hadn't? Study the careers and habits of the lawmakers ("prosopography," Namier called it) and you will begin to grasp what makes the place tick.

I DON'T NEED TO POINT OUT THE DIFFERENCES between the 18th-century House of Commons and a modern American legislative body. But in covering the U.S. House as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I found Namier's insights an almost indispensable guide. The House was a morass of speeches, position papers, and bills and amendments introduced, but the final product seemed strangely divorced from all of that carefully prepared verbiage.

On the other hand, it was a revelation to look closely at what the members actually did with themselves every day. Which ones ate lunch with each other at the same table all the time? Which ones sat together in clusters at the back of the chamber, often in a remote corner that the press gallery couldn't see? Which ones drove home to their districts together at the end of the congressional workweek? Which ones were fanatical rooters for Notre Dame, or UCLA, or Penn State?

This barely scratched the surface. But more often than not, it helped to explain why an amendment that seemed reasonable and carefully prepared never made it out of subcommittee, and why a much less plausible one attracted an odd bipartisan following. Most intriguing of all, it helped to explain why a powerful committee like Appropriations, whose members made strident floor speeches disparaging each other across the aisle, nearly always produced final bills that ended up becoming law with little partisan controversy.

Congress has changed a lot since the days when I sat in the press gallery watching it. Most obviously, rigid partisanship has infected the place in ways that would have seemed impossible at that time. But I would still say that paying attention to members' lives, careers and relationships is fundamental to making any sense out of the institution at all. And the same is true of state legislatures, no matter how prone to partisan bickering they have recently become.

The reality is that all legislative bodies are communities of a sort. When they are quarrelsome and dysfunctional, they are failed communities. But they are still communities.

WHAT HAPPENS when the members attempt to simulate community life without seeing each other or, as will be true in some cases next year, without having laid eyes on each other once? Can a virtual legislature be a real legislature? That brings up a larger and even more difficult conundrum: Is a virtual community a real community at all?

A great deal has been written in recent years about virtual communities, and whether they are in any way a substitute for the face-to-face social relations that have atrophied in most of the country over the past couple of generations. Robert Putnam and other respected social scientists have traced the decline of many of the social institutions that used to be linchpins of middle-class American life. We don't belong to Rotary Clubs the way we once did. We don't have regular dinners with our neighbors as much as our parents did. We still go bowling, but not in the communal leagues that were ubiquitous in the early postwar years. We do our bowling alone, to invoke the phrase that Putnam has been making famous in books and essays since the beginning of this century. To most people who follow the argument closely, all of this marks a decline in the elements of real community that were once familiar and comforting to us.

At the same time, the rebuttal goes, we are creating community in new virtual forms. We can use our computers to make contacts with fellow chess players, bird watchers or Chinese pottery collectors. We strike up serious dating relationships with people online when we have barely had a chance to meet them.

Is it the same thing as traditional community, or just as good? I don't think so, any more than participating in an online bird-watching club is as meaningful as going out with a close-knit group of friends and actually looking at birds.

And so I'm forced to conclude that writing laws by remote control cannot be an adequate substitute for writing them face-to-face. Some decent work will get done, but as the Washington State majority leader concedes, the really important accomplishments have to depend on face-to-face relationships.

We are already confronting an atmosphere of alienation and mistrust that has made many of our legislative bodies unproductive. I can't say for sure that virtual legislating will make the situation a great deal worse. What I can all but guarantee is that it won't make things any better.

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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