A realistic view of what a legislative session could look like during a pandemic

July 29, 2020   4:15 PM by Jon Fisher 

A realistic view of what a legislative session could look like during a pandemic 

After lengthy conversations with insiders, Texas Capitol veteran Jon Fisher takes an in-depth look at what a session might really be like come January: Professional advocates whose stock-in-trade is hard work and research may have the upper hand while those who rely on entertainment may be at a distinct disadvantage 

One thing on which everyone agrees is that anyone planning to work the 87th Legislature needs to be preparing for an entirely different environment. 

What will it actually look like? 

Of course, it is too soon to know for sure, but we recently asked some experienced veterans to help us understand how this could really unfold. What happens in the future, naturally, is based on ever-changing conditions. Remember, the Texas Capitol is not even open right now. 

Speculation began in earnest when Texas House parliamentarians released a memo on July 16 outlining how interim studies could proceed under House rules without formal public hearings. That will not be the issue in January, when both chambers will have the chance to rewrite their rules. 

Texas House leadership is currently surveying members to determine what the existing membership believes would be the best way to handle business next session. Those results are not in yet. 

House sources are telling us that they are preparing for a hugely different environment and that those who have incorporated flexibility and innovation in their lobbying plans will have the advantage. 

There are a few common themes in those preparations. 

First, the digital fame is being stepped up. Luckily, we have many resources that we have not had in the past. Time spend figuring out how to use technology is time well spent. 

Second, communication and lobbying will be different. Lobbyists who rely on hard work and research will have an advantage. “Social” lobbyists, those that rely heavily on entertainment, may be at a disadvantage. Further, this is probably not the best time to be stating a career in lobbying because existing relationships and trust will be paramount. There likely will not be as many opportunities to build relationships. 

Third, campaign season, which is usually a good time to build your cell phone list and spend some face time, is even more critical while being even more challenging. Not knowing the makeup of the House, which could affect leadership, creates one of those challenges. And, during a pandemic, campaigning itself has changed. 

There are not as many opportunities for that critical “face time” with incoming legislators and one must contemplate developing relationships with even more candidates. For those that like to personally volunteer in campaigns, picking a few close campaigns in which to participate will be more challenging due to physical distancing. There just may not be as many opportunities for that. Political consultants who also lobby will likely continue to be an essential part of any lobbying team. 

Most speculate that the next Texas Legislature will be sharply focused on fulfilling its duties safely and that there will be truly little, if any, time for a wide variety of issues. If you haven’t already, lobbyists would be well advised to tell clients to pare down their wish list and prepare to get nothing. 

Remember, flu season normally peaks in February, so we may be dealing with a confusing circumstance because some of the coronavirus symptoms are similar. Many have noted what happened in Mississippi when social distancing wasn’t practiced, and masks were not commonly used: At least 26 Mississippi legislators tested positive for COVID-19. 

So, what can we expect?

Our sources have made some guesses based on what has happened in other states as well as what is already unfolding here. 

Expect the Texas Capitol to be open, perhaps with some additional screening at the entrance. 

Expect your access to be limited. Some offices may take visitors by appointment only. There may even be a plexiglass shield at the receptive desk. If you are accustomed to using a friendly legislator’s office as a “satellite” office, you may not be welcome. Some speculate that the need to attend to constituents may further limit the opportunities for lobbyists. After all, legislators must first be responsive to their constituents. 

Providing food to legislators’ offices may be different. Buffets are probably out. Pre-packaged food will probably become the norm. Of course, your attendance will still be necessary because of the presence requirement for food and beverage but hanging out for a long period of time might not be advisable. 

Hearings could be quite different as well. Hearing rooms almost certainly will be modified. In the Senate, with the sheer number of staff who may be seated in the room and the need for social distancing on the dais, witnesses could be staged at another location and called one of two at a time. 

The House likely will be similarly dealing with the need for social distancing while providing some accommodation for witnesses. How that will look will depend on the results of the survey mentioned above. One thing is certain: both houses will try their best to provide for participation and transparency but must do so safely. 

Do not expect to be able to spend a lot of time negotiating bills. 

If you haven’t worked out an “agreed” bill, your chances of serious consideration are limited. Some don’t even expect all the agencies under Sunset Review to be considered. Basically, the bandwidth for legislation may be severely diminished. The goal of the Legislature will be to focus on their primary work product: The budget coupled with the governor’s priorities. There may not be time for yours. 

In short: The bar for getting your issue even considered just got raised considerably. 

Legislative Days at the Capitol will be different, and some may be cancelled. Some offices may even decide not to welcome “drop in” guests, so constituent visits should be scheduled even more than in the past. Some gatherings will likely be moved outside to improve safety. Indoor receptions just might not be feasible. .

Don’t expect either house to meet as long as in the past. There is less chance of disruption caused by an outbreak if exposure is limited. At last one source has reported there is talk of convening and then adjourning for two weeks, asking legislators to self-isolate to minimize risk to each other when reconvening. While that may or may not occur, almost everyone we’ve talked to says all bets are off if there is an outbreak. What happens then? Is the session halted for a couple weeks to contain the spread? 

In the time between now and the election of a new speaker, better therapeutics could be developed and perhaps we will see an effective vaccine hit the market. While the former may not cause much relief from the above possibilities, the latter certainly could. 

But, even if an effective vaccine is developed it may likely not be available widely enough to allow a return to business as usual. 

Anticipating and planning for this “new normal” may mean the difference between success and failure in advocacy efforts. 

By Jon Fisher