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Did Zoom Interactions Fuel a Chaotic Legislative Session?

What happened in the California state Senate on the final night of the two-year legislative session Monday was perhaps a prime example of machines dispatching decorum and crippling civility.

by George Skelton, Los Angeles Times / September 3, 2020
California's state capitol building in Sacramento. David Kidd

(TNS) — Legislators are reflective of the people who elect them — not just in ideology but in behavior. That's the way it was set up and it works — for better or worse.

When people communicate through technology rather than in person, inhibitions too often break down and they get testy. Maybe even act like jerks, flinging insults. We see this with email, Twitter and bellicose blogs.

But if you're looking someone in the eye, you tend to smile and mind your manners, perhaps even try some charm and diplomacy.

What happened in the California state Senate on the final night of the two-year legislative session Monday was a prime example of machines dispatching decorum and crippling civility.

I've always marveled at how legislators of opposing parties can fight to the death politically over heated issues but constantly act like longtime close friends when dealing with one another personally.

That has become less so as politics — reflective of the nation — has become more polarized. But nevertheless, at least in the California Legislature, there has always been graciousness and civility.

That, however, requires face-to-face contact. And this was unfortunately banned in the Senate during the final four hectic days of the legislative session.

Republican senators were barred from the Capitol because one — Brian Jones of Santee — tested positive for COVID-19. They'd caucused together last week and presumably had been exposed to the virus, although all except Jones later tested negative.

One Republican, Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber, did not attend the caucus, so he was allowed on the Senate floor with all the Democrats.

The ruling Democrats — 29 of the 40 senators — arranged for the 10 exiled Republicans to debate and vote remotely from their residences using impersonal Zoom. But there was confusion and technical flaws.

The result was anger, chaos and a broken legislative process — just when it needed to be churning on all cylinders to meet a constitutional midnight deadline for passing bills.

When Republican Sen. Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore was heard spewing a profanity into her mic — "This is bull.…" — you knew that Senate decorum had vanished and the system wasn't working.

Melendez followed that with a tweet protesting a Democrat-imposed limit on debate: "This silences the voices of millions of people so Democrats have enough time to pass their crappy bills before midnight. This is outrageous and is COMPLETE BULL…."

The next day I called Melendez. The senator said she had initially thought the debate limit was worse than it actually was, "but it doesn't matter. They were limiting debate after having kicked us out of the building."

Because Democrats had taken control of the mute function on Republicans' Zoom mics, Melendez told me, she thought that when her face disappeared from the screen, she was disconnected. She wasn't.

"I was just kind of muttering to myself, which people do on the [Senate] floor," she said.

But why did she repeat the profanity in a Tweet?

"Then you've got to own it," she replied. "What are you going to do?"

The Democrats' debate limit was harsh enough: Opening and closing statements by the author sandwiched around two-minute speeches by two senators on each side. It was proposed by Senate Majority Floor Leader Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys).

"Republicans didn't understand it was a management issue and not a partisan issue," Hertzberg told me. "It was as much about Democrats as Republicans. We had [Democrats] giving long speeches."

But the debate limit later was dropped as part of a peace pact between Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield). It took a 90-minute Senate recess — gobbling up precious time as the midnight deadline approached — to negotiate a deal and calm tempers so voting could proceed.

Grove and Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, who was presiding over the Senate, had engaged in a long, heated exchange before the recess, talking over each other.

Grove told me Democrats had assured Republicans that they'd be treated remotely as if they were on the floor.

"When that was removed from us, everything started to go downhill," she said.

"There was the loss of the personal touch. On the floor, you walk up to someone and have a different tone of voice. It's personal and more cordial."

Melendez agreed: "It would have been different if we had been in the same room together. We wouldn't have had the technical issues fanning the flames. And it's very different when interacting personally with each other."

"People are much more gracious toward each other when they're face to face," Hertzberg said. "They never say certain things looking someone in the eye."

Jackson concurred, but also blamed President Trump "for setting a low bar and creating a culture and acceptance of incivility…. I'm really disappointed the camaraderie of the house just dissolved, primarily because Republicans felt they were being punished."

Democrats also suspected that Republicans were running out the clock, stalling the process to prevent some major bills from passing before the deadline.

"If the rules were reversed, what would they do?" Melendez said. "I will admit we took a little longer [talking and voting] at the very end than we would normally."

Actually, all Republicans who tested negative probably should have been allowed in the Senate chamber. They could have been required to wear masks and kept at a six-foot distance behind plexiglass — that is, treated like Democrats.

Remote legislating resulted in ill will, squandered time and some good bills being killed. But hopefully remote legislating was buried too — forever.

©2020 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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