Remote Deliberations in the U.S. State Legislatures and the Role of Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation

About NCSL (National Conference of State Legislatures)

Strategic Partners

Introduction

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the operations of state legislatures across the United States. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has played a vital role in helping these institutions adapt to the new normal by providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and best practices. This essay will discuss the various ways in which state legislatures have incorporated remote participation into their operations, as well as the role of inter-parliamentary cooperation in facilitating this shift.

 

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)

 

The NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves and represents all 7,383 state legislators in the United States and the 25,000 legislative staff working within state capitols. Its mission is to provide a convener and forum for policy ideas, to provide nonpartisan research and analysis to its members, to serve as the voice of state legislatures on Capitol Hill, and to strengthen the effectiveness, independence, and integrity of the legislative branch of government.

 

NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening provides analysis, consultation, and research for members on legislative operations and the legislative institution. This includes legislative processes, human resources, and information technology.

 

NALIT (National Association of Legislative Information Technology) is a network of information technology professionals who work in all 50 US state legislatures. Its mission is to promote the exchange of ideas and information on all aspects of information systems, provide a network of information exchange for its members, and foster better relations between legislative IT staff, legislators, and legislative staff they serve.

 

State Legislative Operations in Normal Times

 

In normal times, state legislatures are used to dealing with a range of challenges, such as dramatic floor votes, impassioned speeches, citizen protests, and even natural disasters. However, nothing quite prepared them for how to function through a global pandemic.

 

In 2020, state legislatures, like all public institutions, focused on their continuity of government. This involved executing plans to allow legislatures to convene, communicate, and make decisions in an emergency, while keeping members, staff, and visitors safe.

 

State legislatures in the US operate in unique ways, with at least 99 approaches to running a state legislative institution, given that there are 99 state legislative chambers. Some paused their sessions to assess the best approach moving forward, while others continued to meet in person.

 

Adjustments and Innovations during the Pandemic

 

During the pandemic, legislatures had to create contingencies and plans for meeting safely. Common themes included enhanced health and safety protocols, moving some staff to remote work arrangements, and tapping into new technology tools. Some legislatures met in alternative venues like sports arenas, concert venues, or outdoors to maintain social distancing.

 

Digital readiness became an essential aspect of their operations, with many legislative chambers amending their standing orders or adopting new rules to allow for remote participation in floor sessions and committee proceedings. Remote participation varied considerably across the US, with some chambers going entirely virtual, while others used a hybrid approach.

 

Legal and Logistical Considerations

 

A legislative chamber’s ability to integrate remote participation hinged on logistical considerations like technology, as well as legal considerations, such as obtaining a quorum to conduct business. In most cases, rule changes allowing for remote participation were designed to be temporary, with their continuation post-pandemic yet to be determined.

 

Impact on Legislative Information Technology Offices

 

The pandemic significantly impacted state legislative IT offices, which acted swiftly to ensure continuity of the legislature. They changed priorities, built new applications, and implemented systems in record time. IT staff worked to provide equipment, ensure network security, and provide training and support for remote work. They also set up and secured video conferencing software to conduct legislative proceedings remotely and developed remote voting tools.

 

Increased Public Participation and Challenges

 

The shift to remote participation has had some positive effects, such as increased public participation in the legislative process. Many legislatures added online forms for the public to submit comments and opinions on bills, request to testify before committees, and view live streams of legislative sessions and committee hearings. Some states, like North Dakota, reported significant increases in live and on-demand views, as well as remote testimony registrants.

 

However, there have also been concerns about the potential downsides of remote participation. Critics argue that closed state houses and remote participation can be problematic for citizens who lack technology or access to broadband. Additionally, some believe that virtual interactions cannot replicate the essential in-person interactions that normally occur under the capitol domes.

 

The Role of Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation

 

Inter-parliamentary cooperation has played a crucial role in helping state legislatures adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic. NCSL, NALIT, and other organizations have facilitated the exchange of ideas, experiences, and best practices among legislators and legislative staff across the country.

 

These networks have provided a platform for members to ask questions, receive answers, and share their experiences in dealing with the pandemic. They have also organized webinars, virtual meetings, and online training sessions to help state legislatures effectively implement remote participation and address various challenges.

 

Conclusion

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced U.S. state legislatures to adapt and innovate in order to maintain their essential functions. Remote participation has been a key aspect of this transformation, allowing legislatures to continue their work while keeping members, staff, and the public safe. Inter-parliamentary cooperation, facilitated by organizations such as NCSL and NALIT, has played a vital role in helping state legislatures navigate this unprecedented situation. The future of remote participation in state legislatures remains uncertain, but the lessons learned during the pandemic will undoubtedly continue to shape the way these institutions operate in the years to come.

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