It took members of the House Rules and Order of Business Committee about four hours Friday to lay out the rules for how the House of Representatives will run this year’s legislative session.
But it only took 90 minutes for Republicans and Democrats to accuse each other of launching attacks.
The final 11-5 vote went along party lines, with Democrats voting to approve House Rule 1 and Republicans voting against it. The rules set up new procedures for working virtually in the age of COVID-19.
The conflict began when Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, questioned why Democrats want to require everyone participating in House floor debates to communicate via Zoom on computers, even if they are sitting in their chairs on the floor.
Townsend said it was because the majority party is concerned about viewers at home watching the event and seeing Republicans on-site in the Capitol debating while Democrats take part virtually from their offices or homes — which is what happened, to a large degree, during last year’s brief special sessions.
“The majority is hesitant for the public to see the optics of the minority on the House floor doing what they were elected to do and the other side of the chamber empty,” Townsend said. “That is the real issue.”
When he suggested the move was to “fool the public,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, cut in and said Townsend was “dangerously close” to denouncing the reputation of other legislators.
“There’s nothing embarrassing about empty Democratic seats on the floor,” Egolf said. “That’s something we should be proud of.”
The conflict between the parties, separated not just by political affiliation but by the way they want the 60-day legislative session to operate during the pandemic, was underscored by the nature of Friday’s meeting.
Democratic leaders say they are doing everything they can to ensure everyone involved in the session stays safe. The state Capitol is closed to the public during the legislative session.
Republicans have argued that the public is being left out of the process and that the new rules are hamstringing their party’s efforts to have a say.
Republicans submitted seven amendments to the bill, all of which were tabled by Democrats.
Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Albuquerque, who presented the rules bill to the committee, said lawmakers have to adjust methods this year to address the health crisis.
“The more members that are on the floor and the longer they are on the floor, the more dangerous it becomes” in terms of possible exposure to the virus, Ely said.
He said he objected to the notion that Democrats are not showing up on the floor because they don’t want to be there. “The ones not on the floor are the ones acting responsibly,” he said — a comment that led Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, to accuse Ely of impugning Townsend.
Though the tension dissipated over time — particularly after Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, asked everyone to take a deep breath and “leave some of the emotion out of it” — the meeting played out like a chess game in which Democrats had a few extra pieces.
That’s because they outnumber Republicans in the House 45-25. On the committee, it’s 12-6 (two members were excused from the rules vote).
Republicans questioned why, among other measures, their members have to now go through party leaders to make a point of order rather than do it themselves, which is the typical procedure.
Democrats on the committee said it will streamline the process and ensure they are heard on Zoom, where participants can easily talk over each other and perhaps not be heard.
Republicans didn’t buy it, saying it adds an unnecessary step to the process and could take that power away from individual members.
“I don’t like any bill that takes … my voice away from doing the job that I was elected to do,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas. “That’s insulting to me as an elected official.”
Montoya also pushed to include a provision that would ensure lawmakers remain at their computers and within sight during all virtual discussions. He also wanted to know how the Legislature would know if someone voting virtually was really the one casting a vote.
Democrats countered that even during floor sessions, members often leave the chamber at times, just as they leave their computers. Egolf said the computer system used to tally votes is doubly encrypted and can only be used by legislators.
A sense of frustration continued throughout the hearing.
“We’re on day four of the session and I’m disheartened by this assuming the worst in people,” said Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque — who acknowledged left his computer several times during Friday’s hearing.
And sometimes, the impassioned voices on both sides suggested that they were aware of a greater threat to all of them.
“Maybe some of us will end up with COVID,” Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said at one point in explaining the need to avoid gathering in the House chamber.
“Some of us, or one or two of us, may end up dead as a result of being in that room,” she said.