With the Texas Legislature set to open its 2021 session in January at the Capitol, questions remain about how the body will address COVID-19. Legislators, staffers, citizens, the press and advocates all descend on the building every two years, making social distancing and other pandemic precautions a matter of concern.
Scott Braddock is editor of Quorum Report. He told Texas Standard that when people who run the House and Senate’s day-to-day operations are asked about plans for the session, “the answer includes a lot of ‘I don’t knows’ about key things.”
Questions remain about whether lawmakers should be able to work from home, and even cast votes from somewhere other than the House or Senate floor.
“That’s very contentious for lots of reasons,” Braddock said.
Access to legislators for the media and the public are also among the issue that leaders must address.
Braddock says Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants people visiting the Capitol to be tested for COVID-19 24 hours prior to their visit, and to sign up to give testimony three days in advance.
“There are some folks who think that the lieutenant governor is, quite frankly, hypocritical about this,” Braddock said.
Patrick recently attended a Dallas fundraiser that included no such restrictions.
Braddock points out that crafting and passing legislation is “an intimate process” in which persuasion and agreement typically depend on close contact, and that communicating in person is different than an online gathering.
“I would liken it to the way people can use very coarse language and very hateful language on social media – things they would never say in person,” Braddock said.
The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House are charged with making rules about the session, and Braddock says he expects the three to make a joint statement before the beginning of the legislative session.
Braddock characterizes disputes over press and public access to the Capitol as conflicts over “proximity to power.”
The Texas Constitution requires the House and Senate to have “open sessions,” but Braddock says the exact meaning of that phrase is up for debate.
“We’re days, if not weeks, away from something concrete,” he said.