In a democratic society, continuity of government in times of crisis is an important part of both citizen representation and keeping society from slipping into chaos. COVID-19 has severely challenged that equation, due in no small part to the fact that the coronavirus can be spread rapidly by people who don’t even feel sick or have symptoms.

Since mid-March, Hawaii’s Legislature has been in a state of indefinite recess because of the high risk of infection to elected officials, legislative staff and members of the public.

This abrupt halt to legislative proceedings has left the very future of the state in question, and has, in some ways, made Gov. David Ige even more powerful in the absence of an active legislative branch to constitutionally check his power.

Shutting down on-site public hearings and other activities to prevent the coronavirus spreading was only common sense. As someone who worked many sessions at the Capitol, I personally know how easy it was to get sick with so many people passing through on a daily basis.

Between the dozens of people you meet, the long stressful hours in the building, and the fact that everyone is in close quarters, working at the Capitol wreaks havoc on your immune system. I can’t possibly imagine how dangerous it would be to work at the Legislature now, with coronavirus on the loose.

The Legislature’s physical presence at the Capitol is not required to conduct business. Much of it is already done electronically so why not use Zoom to hold hearings and floor sessions? Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

This being said, a lot of things have changed technologically since I first worked at the Capitol in 2005. There is no practical reason why the Legislature cannot continue session online; lawmakers just need to vote to change the House and Senate rules to permit it.

The Legislature for years has worked to go paperless, which means that electronic testimony submitted online or by email has been the norm for over a decade, making public interaction by internet easy. There also are more advanced online telepresence platforms available, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype and countless others.

Nearly all of the important documents ranging from hearing notices, committee reports, bill drafts and many others are already drafted electronically and uploaded to the Chief Clerk’s Office. And while one of the benefits of being a Hawaii legislator is getting to use the black, micropoint felt marker known affectionately in-house as “the Signature Pen,” the State of Hawaii’s Adobe Creative Cloud license allows for verifiable e-signature on any document.

Because the residents of Hawaii have been forced to stay home, the elected government of Hawaii needs to go to work online on behalf of their constituents, and that means completing the 2020 session.

Yes, we have seen the occasional special information briefing or two at the Capitol televised on Olelo, but if holding meetings and appearing on TV is all elected officials plan to do, then the people don’t have a legislature, they have a glorified neighborhood board holding meetings at their expense.

Certain senators have cast aspersions that it is impossible to know whether members of Hawaii’s civil service are purportedly being “paid to do nothing” at home. One thing, however, is certain: every elected representative or senator that isn’t passing bills or voting on important matters of the state right now is definitely being paid to do nothing.

Everything that we are used to the Legislature doing in the physical building they can continue to do right now at home online.

These are precisely the kinds of times that you want to have a legislature in session, even if it means digitizing every aspect and putting it online for full sunshine. Even at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Congress had plans to continue holding full hearings and conducting votes in bunkers should nuclear or biochemical war break out. Surely if World War III could not stop Congress from voting, there should be no reason to put off Hawaii’s legislative session indefinitely in a digital age.

How To Get The Leg Back To Work

Many essential members of Hawaii government are already clocking in daily at 7:45 a.m. by telework at home, holding meetings in Microsoft Teams, filling out all the usual paperwork electronically and doing everything they did in the office, just at home. The Legislature needs to do exactly the same thing, and gavel session back in this very week.

To begin, all committees could have their regular hearings by Zoom, and the public could offer testimony or participate by being given the appropriate information and meeting numbers in a hearing notice published on the web. The order of who speaks and when can easily be controlled by whoever hosts the meeting, so every aspect of normal decorum could be maintained. Floor sessions could be handled in the same way.

All internal collaboration between committees, research agencies, and other offices could be handled by e-mail or through Microsoft Teams or Google G-Suite, if they’re not already doing that. Everything that we are used to the Legislature doing in the physical building they can continue to do right now at home online, including singing their songs during adjournment sine die.

When vital matters of budgeting, public health, and the pay of essential workers are at stake, does it really make sense to just have two of three branches of government working for us? We are living in the 21st century, and we elected our Legislature to hold the power of the purse and the authority to enact laws.

Emergency powers by a governor without checks and balances is dangerous. Gavel back in online. The people deserve representation.

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About the Author

  • Danny de Gracia

    Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

    Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

    He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

    Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.