In the uncertainty and chaos of COVID’s onset, it was understandable last year when the Legislature strayed from its usual procedures in significant and unprecedented ways. Now, however, it is long past time for lawmakers to get back to doing the people’s business with relative normality — at the Statehouse, out in the open and in-person. Unfortunately, it appears that the Massachusetts House of Representatives does not agree.
Currently, House lawmakers are debating the structure of a reopening plan, proposed elements of which include a vaccine mandate for all members and staff as well as an extension for the allowance of remote voting beyond Oct. 1. The order would declare a state of emergency in the House, triggering a set of temporary rules that would allow for the continuation of remote voting and participation for lawmakers who are either unvaccinated or not ready to return in-person.
While the House does not appear willing to model leadership by example, it should. That lawmakers now have to debate whether a vaccine mandate is appropriate, long after they should have reopened their usual public proceedings with common-sense precautions, is ludicrous. Legislators should be exemplifying to their constituents that the best way to combat this pandemic is through vaccination. Furthermore, why should this proposed order, even with a vaccine mandate, continue to allow for the remote participation of those lawmakers who remain unvaccinated or are unwilling to return to work? Countless commonwealth students — many of whom are too young to even be vaccinated — have returned to the classroom (not to mention their teachers). Why should our representatives, employed by and for the people of Massachusetts, get a pass on returning as swiftly as reasonably possible to the important work of state government’s legislative branch?
Putting off the return to normal, pre-COVID proceedings for our state’s highest democratic institutions is no longer justified, and it hasn’t been for some time. Transparency, efficiency and efficacy demand getting back to the people’s business as usual, yet House reopening plans so far don’t even have an estimated timeline of when in-person sessions and public access will return. They already should have. Yes, COVID-19 is still with us, but reasonable distancing and masking precautions could be put in place that wouldn’t obstruct the Statehouse from essentially returning to normal procedures. If the people of Massachusetts can deal with those minor inconveniences where necessary, so can lawmakers — a small price to pay for a speedy return to state government’s normal operational procedures.
While we have said it before, it bears repeating since our leaders on Beacon Hill who ostensibly represent us haven’t listened. The Legislature is long overdue for a return to the typical setting of their work; if students and teachers can do it, then so can lawmakers. At this point, refusing to do so is a refusal to do their job appropriately and fulfill their duty to the commonwealth and its citizens — and that cannot be tolerated.