Why I’m Not Doing the Thing I’m Not Doing

I’ve been doing something different this year. Or should I say not doing something. For the first time since probably 2016, I’ve paid very little attention to the modern version of the building pictured above.

The Statehouse.

The center of all things political, right?

Well, no, not really.

I began the 2022 session pursuing my old habits: Checking the weekly committee schedule to see which hearings I might want to audit. I made a list each week.

And then I ignored the list. After the first few weeks, I stopped bothering.

And I have to tell you, I think it’s improved my work as a political analyst. It’s given me a broader view, a much better perspective on the Vermont political scene.

I’m not saying the Statehouse isn’t important. It’s where legislation is written and policy is made. That’s big stuff. But it happens at a, to put it politely, deliberate pace. Much of the activity is more theater than policymaking. With rare exceptions, no single hearing advances an issue very much. And most of the real work happens offscreen anyway. House and Senate leadership, in consultation with committee chairs, figure out what’s going to move when and what’s getting stuck to the wall for good.

And no matter how long you spend camped out in the cafeteria, you won’t have a clue when and where the deal goes down.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Surely, you might say, all the power players are gathered under one golden roof. More politicians per square foot than anywhere else in Vermont. Surely you have to be on hand if only to take the temperature of the place and grab people in the hallway.

Well, yes, if you’re talking about lawmaking. But no, if you’re talking about the political process.

The vast majority of politics happens nowhere near the dome. The Statehouse is the tip of the iceberg. Focusing my attention on the tip distorted my view. I was only vaguely aware of the shape and size of the rest.

Turn the picture around and you’ll see it even more clearly. Aside from those directly concerned, nobody pays any attention to the Statehouse. The vast majority of voters spend little to no time following the legislative process. And it’s extremely rare for any single Statehouse event to have any measurable impact on electoral success or failure.

Look at 2018, the year when Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the state budget — not once, but twice. The second veto was issued on June 14, a little more than two weeks before the lack of a budget would have triggered a government shutdown.

The primary campaigns were running hot and heavy at the time. But I don’t remember the vetoes being mentioned much at all — even though Democrats could have made some hay over Scott risking a shutdown over relatively small differences.

It was rarely if ever mentioned in the fall campaign, and it certainly didn’t make a difference in the outcome. Even such a dramatic event didn’t connect with the voting public. The veto fight was forgotten almost as soon as it was resolved.

This has actually been a fairly consequential legislative session. Scott has already vetoed three bills this year, and there may be override attempts on all three. Many other big issues hang in the balance. And if nothing else, there’s the indirect intrigue of having three significant Statehouse figures running for Congress.

But that race won’t be settled, and may hardly be impacted at all, by what goes on in Montpelier. It’s much more a matter of grassroots organizing and building a statewide network of donors and volunteers.

So I haven’t covered much at all of the legislative doings. Letting go of the Statehouse has allowed me to get a better idea of the whole picture.

I’m not saying nobody should cover the Statehouse. We need reporters there every day. But in my role, the Statehouse just isn’t that important. I’d say the same about anyone else working as a political columnist or commentator. They’d be more insightful and more accurate if they spent more time observing the entire scene and developing sources around the state, and less time under the golden dome.

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