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Ramsey: A government of, by and for — but without the people

The Texas Capitol has a capacity of 6,000 “if you throw the doors open,” according to state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. It was closed for cleaning for two days this past week, after COVID-19 made its way into the ranks of the state police who guard the building.

Two troopers working in the Capitol tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the shutdown and a hard clean. The disinfecting was complicated by the artwork and antiques in the building, which would have been ruined by fogging machines. “They basically have to wipe everything down,” Geren says.

Geren, chairman of the House Administration Committee, is helping figure out how to run the legislative branch of the state government during a pandemic. “We’re already having those conversations,” he says. “A lot of it depends on this damn virus.”

The Capitol has been open throughout the pandemic, but only for a skeleton staff and a large contingent of those state troopers. Those troopers were called in to protect the place after minor vandalism of the Capitol during recent demonstrations against police brutality.

There are just a few state workers around, according to Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw, and legislative committees haven’t been meeting. “It’s been very quiet,” she says.

The Legislature is not in session, and won’t be until January, unless Gov. Greg Abbott calls a special session for some reason. Between their biennial sessions, lawmakers work on a list of “interim charges,” conducting hearings and preparing legislation on dozens and dozens of issues they’ll debate when they meet next year.

But they can’t hold those hearings without getting people into committee rooms — their current rules don’t allow them to meet online or on the phone — and the part of their work that requires public hearings is languishing.

Texas is watching other legislative bodies for ideas, but there aren’t many examples. “There’s Congress, but Congress doesn’t really work when everything is normal,” Geren says.

The House is getting three committee rooms ready, with plastic dividers to reduce contact where social distancing isn’t possible. The Senate is on the same track, with Spaw looking at dividers and sanitizer stands and masks, wipes and gloves — all of the stuff that will or might be needed when business returns to the building. She’ll make some recommendations to senators soon.

Geren says the House Appropriations Committee, which needs to write the first draft of the next state budget, has to meet. So does the Sunset Advisory Commission that periodically reviews state agencies to decide whether they should be abolished or reorganized or left alone. Redistricting also requires extensive public hearings, but the delay of the census because of the pandemic might postpone the need for those hearings.

Anyway, you can’t run a Legislature — a deeply social exercise between lawmakers, the public, interest groups and state agencies — without putting people together somehow. This building is built for debate and discourse, full of rooms built for speaking and listening, for deal-making and budget-writing and all the rest.

Lobbyists got their name from the lobbies where supplicants often gather — in Texas, the large stairwells outside the Senate and House chambers. Those gaggles are effective places to catch lawmakers for quick exchanges, but they’re also the exact opposite of social distancing.

“There’s a place and a function for all of these people — legislators, the public, the lobby and the press,” Shaw says. “That’s how this works.”

That’s how it has worked, anyway. The coronavirus might change the very function of the building. What happens during the next legislative session, and in the time between now and its start, is uncertain.

It’s entirely possible — unless the coronavirus is leashed by then — that the Legislature will convene in January without the rest of Texas allowed into the important rooms of the Capitol with legislators and necessary staff. “I’m not sure we’re going to allow anyone on the floor,” Geren says. “I don’t know if either chamber is going to be open next year.”

The Senate, with 31 members and necessary staff in attendance, could probably meet in its regular chamber with the desks moved apart — socially distanced, but operational. But the House, with 150 members and staff in the room, might be forced to take over the balconies to conduct business safely with everyone in the chamber.

Those galleries are ordinarily for the public, lobbyists and others who want to watch the proceedings. Geren says the public, the lobby and the media might all be forced out, left to follow the action online. The Senate might have its galleries open, but while we’re in this pandemic, there will be rules for social distancing.

The members of the 87th Legislature might be as busy as usual. But they might be alone in a building designed for a multitude.

— Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of The Texas Tribune. His column appears Tuesday.

Today's Bible verse

“Those on the rocky soil are the ones who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and yet these do not have a firm root; they believe for a while, and in a time of temptation they fall away.”

Luke 8:13

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