With the Legislature operating, but under social distancing guidelines, I thought I’d use this space to recount my experiences conducting business in the Legislature during the pandemic.
There’s roughly only one staffer per office, although most legislators have been in the building to at least participate in legislative hearings, and as of last week, floor sessions. Outside of hearings, neither lobbyists nor the public are allowed to visit legislative offices. They can only attend legislative hearings.
The rules for getting in to and navigating around the building have noticeably changed. The Sergeants at Arms do not even unlock the doors to the building for lobbyists or the public until 10-15 minutes before the start of the hearing. You cannot enter the building if you have a cough, fever, or any other indication that you are sick. And you are screened by nurses before you can even go through security. Legislative staff can only enter the building from the N Street entrance on the south side of the capitol, and the public can only enter from the L Street entrance on the north side.
Once you are through security you are escorted to the elevators by an Assembly or Senate sergeant, depending on if you are attending an Assembly or Senate hearing. You cannot walk the stairs. Once you exit the elevator, another sergeant will escort you to the hearing room. From there a third sergeant will either escort you to a seat or will let you choose your own seat out of the marked open seats. That’s just leading up to the hearing.
Once you’ve taken your seat you notice that the Chair is behind a glass partition and that legislators on the dais are at least two seats apart from each other. The committee consultant, normally sitting right next to the Chair, is at the witness table taking roll. The Committee Assistant or Committee Secretary isn’t in the hearing room. If you are providing testimony you can either do so in person, via a teleconference, or by calling in.
Once you’re in the hearing room, you have to get permission to leave from a Sergeant – even to use the bathroom. There’s no wandering around the hearing room or the halls. In fact, if you have to take a phone call, you have to leave the building and re-enter after it’s over. Also, if you need to switch from an Assembly hearing to a Senate hearing, you have to be escorted back to the entrance on the north side of the capitol and then escorted by the appropriate house’s sergeants to the new committee hearing even though the hearings themselves are just on opposite sides of the hall from each other.
Are these new rules a bit of a pain in the rear? Yes, but they are in place to protect people’s health, and hopefully procedures in the Legislature will be able to return to normal soon.
You can find the full transcript, and a more robust account of my experiences conducting business in the Capitol, here.