There was full remote attendance during the most recent meeting of the New Hampshire House Ways and Means Committee. But one lawmaker, Committee Chairman Norm Major explained, would not be allowed to vote during the hearing.
“Mary, you are as important to us as anyone else,” Major said. “But that’s what the rule is now.”
“Mary” is 94-year old Republican Rep. Mary Griffin. Under rules set by House Speaker Sherman Packard, to vote remotely – the norm now, with the Legislature’s virtual meeting schedule amid the pandemic lawmakers must be visible on screen. Because Griffin lacks a computer with a camera, she can’t vote on bills in committee unless she travels to the State House. The policy was roundly criticized by her committee-mates on both sides of the aisle.
“I regret that we are in this situation; it’s most unfortunate,” lamented one of Griffin’s colleagues, Rep. Dick Ames.
COVID-19 has changed daily life for most of us, and the New Hampshire Legislature is no exception. Less social contact and more hours on Zoom are affecting how lawmakers do business, and it’s leading to new tensions and frustrations across the board.
While Griffin’s recent troubles were met with courtliness from her colleagues, COVID-induced change has also led to more offensive inter-lawmaker relations.
On Wednesday, Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry left the virtual meeting of the Executive Administration Committee without telling colleagues. When she returned, Carson explained she needed to take a phone call to address her daughter’s hospitalization and put the committee into recess.
Fellow Republican Sen. John Reagan’s response was to mutter an obscenity in Carson’s direction, overheard on the committee's virtual meeting. He later apologized, said he was unaware he was not muted, and called the incident an "open mic zoom goof." But the vulgarity caught the attention of many State House observers as a particularly egregious example of Zoom crudeness.
While it’s debatable whether remote work is to blame for such an exchange, it is clear that one month into the current legislative session, remote hearings do change dynamics: between colleagues like Carson and Reagan, but also between lawmakers and people who testify on bills.
Committee chairs effectively wield more power in remote hearings: the power to leave meetings without announcing it, as Carson did, but also to shut down testimony they may not want to hear, with the simple touch of a button on their laptop.
One recent example: Jordan Thompson, an ACLU and Black Lives Matter Organizer, was cut off several times while testifying via Zoom about police reform before a House committee last week. GOP Rep. Daryl Abbas silenced Thompson without warning, by muting him on Zoom.
None of this – the technology, the tone, the tension – makes for an easy legislative session. And a lack of close contact is making things difficult for almost everyone who does business in the State House these days. That includes reporters hoping for off-the-record insight from lawmakers, as well as those who earn their living hoping to sway them.
Bruce Berke has been a lobbyist in the State House for decades. But over the past year, he’s spent hardly any time there.
“This process really is a people business, and hopefully there will be some adjustments along the way here, so that it gets back to as near as normal as we can have during this particular year,” Berke said.
“Normal” remains a relative term these days. But one stab at it will come later this month, when the full New Hampshire House is slated to meet in session indoors for the first time this year. The meeting’s location has yet to be announced. But one thing is certain: It won’t be on Zoom.