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Legislature Sitting On Sidelines With No Remote Meeting Process

By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: April 24, 2020 3:17 PM

There's a lot the Legislature could be doing right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holding hearings about the budget implications.

Consideration of legislation to address the repercussions of the outbreak.

Exercising oversight of the actions Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her administration have taken in response to the new coronavirus.

Holding hearings to bring in experts to answer questions about the outbreak and proper public policy responses.

There's also the usual legislative business like working on the budget, providing oversight for state department and agency operations and considering new laws.

Most of those things aren't happening because House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have determined that if the Legislature will convene, it will do so in-person at the Capitol. They have not definitively ruled out the idea of meeting remotely, but it's also apparent that five weeks into Ms. Whitmer putting the state under a stay-at-home order they are in no rush to initiate remote meetings nor do they see it as a pressing priority.

Oversight hearings seem poised to start soon with the creation of the new committee today, but will not be meeting remotely, though that was apparently discussed.

There are a number of avenues that would allow the Legislature to meet remotely that comply with the Michigan Constitution and legislative rules.

Let's start with committees because that's the major short-term problem. Committees have been unable to meet since mid-March because opening up the House and Senate office buildings so dozens of people sit in close proximity to each other in committee rooms would defy all medical advice right now about the need to keep people apart to prevent transmission of the virus.

Committees could meet remotely on a technology platform in compliance with the Constitution and statute, but it would take a change to House and Senate rules.

Committees have long met outside the "seat of government" – the legal term of art used in the Constitution on where the Legislature must convene at noon on the second Wednesday of January, that being Lansing. Committees have met in other cities around the state for years. There's nothing to stop committees from meeting now on a remote basis, other than the need for a rules change, though clearly one factor that needs to be addressed are the fools who have used the public comment functions of such meetings local governments have convened to spew racist invective or share pornographic images.

Bringing the full House or full Senate into session remotely presents greater complications, both logistical and legal, but both can be overcome. The Constitution, to my eyes, only dictates where the Legislature must initially convene on the second Wednesday in January.

House rules would have to be amended, so the House would need to convene in-person first to allow for remote meetings in an emergency, which it would need to do anyway for committees. Unless I'm missing something, Senate rules contain no requirement for convening at the seat of government, but it probably would make sense for it to adopt an emergency remote meetings provision as well since it would have to deal with committee changes too.

For those who insist the Constitution makes no allowance for the Legislature to meet outside of Lansing – and good luck getting a court to tell the legislative branch of government how to conduct its business, something the courts historically have been loath to do – there's always the provision in the Constitution that allows the governor to convene the Legislature outside of Lansing if the seat of government becomes dangerous.

The bottom line: The Legislature can meet remotely. For now, Mr. Chatfield and Mr. Shirkey have chosen not to do so. And unless and until they stand up a remote meeting process, the Legislature's input into the crisis and ability to maintain policy operations is largely going to be limited to press releases, tweets and Facebook posts.

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