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Decorum is an important part of the guardrails that keep political disputes from careening into a ditch of pettiness and distraction in the State House.
To an outside observer who hasn’t seen the day-to-day workings of the Maine House of Representatives and Senate, the rules can seem arbitrary or even silly.
As the calendar moves toward June and the Legislature returns to in-person activities at its regular building, I recall many such early summer days in the State House.
The process of lawmaking can be cumbersome — and in between the rhetoric and the speeches — there’s a lot of process as votes are taken, sentiments are read into the record, motions are made and paper moves back and forth between the two chambers.
The House and Senate can be stifling, and I mean hot. But the rules require that men dress in a jacket and tie during session and that women wear a jacket when they are wearing slacks.
To provide some relief, it takes a motion and a vote to waive the rules and help members beat the heat by taking off their coats. (I’ve never seen this motion fail, but did occasionally wonder what would happen if it did.)
Allowing people to take off a jacket when the mercury rises seems like common sense, but the rules are written so that members of the Legislature and public understand clearly how they are expected to act.
There are other rules, too.
No eating and drinking unless you have a medical necessity. No knitting, crossword puzzles or other hobbies and crafts during session.
Cellphones must be in silent mode and no one in the chamber is allowed to talk on a cellphone during session.
There are even rules about chairs: “No other person may occupy a member’s seat at any time during session” and “members should not turn their chair away from the President and members should not walk between the President and a member who has the floor.”
Members can’t interrupt one another, except in very limited circumstances, and they can’t question the personal motives of one another.
When they use their computer, they are advised to “exercise high standards of discretion, conduct and decorum.”
Earlier this week, seven conservative members of the Legislature showed up to work and refused to wear masks even though they are required by the rules.
While they say the event wasn’t planned, the fact that someone was there ready to record their actions and interactions suggests otherwise.
Last week, the Democrats on the Legislative Council pushed through a rule requiring masks inside the State House. They also relaxed other rules on visitors and eased COVID-19 procedures.
The reasoning behind the continued mask mandate, which is stricter than current guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, centers on caution and protecting those who might not yet be vaccinated. The broader statewide mask requirement ended Monday.
“There are still many people among non-partisan staff, fellow members, our guests (particularly those under the age of 12) and our families at home who have not been able to get vaccinated. Thus, the policy maintains the requirement for face coverings,” House Speaker Ryan Fecteau wrote in a letter to the seven members, as reported by the Portland Press Herald.
As punishment for their violation of the State House mask policy, the six Republicans and one Libertarian were stripped of their committee assignments by Fecteau, a Democrat.
“The COVID-19 Prevention Policy has received a great deal of attention, but it is not the first policy adopted by the Legislative Council over the years,” he continued. “And it is certainly not the only standard or rules that members are expected to follow.”
Indeed, it is not.
I can understand the views of both those who support the mask mandate for the State House and those who argue that the body should be following the same rules as those established for the general public.
As we transition back to more normal expectations, many folks are feeling uncertain about what science and manners demand.
But here’s what’s certain. If a lawmaker can suffer through a hot day in a jacket or leave their knitting at home, they can manage a few more days in a mask to make sure that the State House is as open and welcoming to the public as possible.