With the Legislature in a somnambulant second special session, the Capitol press corps often has nothing much to do some days but meander the halls of the domed Legislative Building, looking for signs of life and sometimes discovering signs of the time.
So it was on Wednesday morning when the Senate was adjourned until Friday but the House was scheduled for a “pro forma”, so I hustled over to the House gallery to make sure they didn’t sneak anything in on the public.
There I encountered a couple of tourists standing in the doorway to the gallery, trying to decide whether it was OK to cross the threshold to such an august establishment. Yes, it’s open to the public, I assured them and we went in together. The woman sat on a bench in the back row of the gallery and the man hovered behind her. Their English was a bit limited – he had a heavy Slavic accent and she had an Asian accent – but as they took in the marbled chamber with its Tiffany light fixtures, she fixed on a screen that projected the timing for the next activity on the wall.
“June 14. Today,” she said, looking at the man.
“9:55 a.m.,” he said, looking at his watch, which if set properly told him that was in about two minutes. They looked at me expectantly, and I assured them that yes, there would be a session in a few minutes, although the House might not hit 9:55 right on the nose.
We talked briefly about the political makeup of the Legislature. He asked if Democrats controlled the House and I said yes, by two votes, 50 to 48. And the Senate, he asked, looking down the hall to the gallery to the other chamber.
Republicans, by one vote, I said, opting not to explain the Majority Coalition Caucus, which gives them the upper hand even though Democrats actually have a 25 to 24 majority but one their members votes with Republicans. That’s hard enough for longtime residents to grasp.
He looked at me dubiously. “Is no one down there,” he said, looking at the floor with 97 empty chairs pushed to their desks, and just a few members of the House staff seated in the front.
No, the legislators won’t be here, I said. A few of them are in meetings, but most of them are back home. So when the session happens, it will be quick, I said. Maybe as short as 20 seconds, which was the length of a session a week earlier.
“Twenty seconds?” she asked skeptically. Well, maybe a little longer, I said, looking down to see Speaker Frank Chopp walking to the dais and sitting in a chair next to the rostrum. He probably has to sign something, I said.
“Sign?” the man asked. The Senate passed a bill Tuesday and the rules say he has to sign it in open session, I explained.
“So this…” he said, looking down at the empty chamber.
Will be that open session, I replied.
Rep. Gael Tarleton was dragooned into banging the gavel for the day, which she did to open the session. She asked for a reading of the previous day’s minutes, which she cut short and moved for acceptance if no one objected. A foregone conclusion, as no one was around to object. She accepted messages from the Senate, similarly cut short, similarly not objected to. She ran through a few other routine matters and looked at Chopp, who had finished writing on a piece of paper.
Tarleton moved for the session to adjourn. Once again, no one objected. The gavel banged and she announced them adjourned for two days. A minute and 27 seconds had passed. The chamber cleared.
The couple looked at each other. That’s it, I told them. They’ll do this again on Friday. Not sure how much longer until they get a budget. I was afraid the visitors hadn’t grasped the intricacies of the Legislature, but the man turned to the woman and said:
“Is pretty good job. You don’t show up for work and they pay you.”
I decided not to explain the rules for per diem, which say they can get an extra $120 per day during the special session, even without being here. The American system of government has a bad enough rep around the without getting into that.