Tag Archives: Legislative Counsel

#MeToo Made Barely a Dent in the Statehouse

I hate to say it, but as far as the Vermont Statehouse is concerned, #MeToo kind of was a fad. At the time, there was talk of serious changes; but in the end, the dynamic is essentially unchanged. From the viewpoint of those enduring harassment, the process is entirely in the hands of lawmakers, there is far more opacity than transparency, and as a result, the process is gathering dust and cobwebs ’cause ain’t nobody using it.

That means one of two things: Sexual harassment is a thing of the past, or the process inspires so little faith that nobody dares to use it. From informal conversations, I can tell you it’s the latter.

This issue hit the front burner thanks to a November 2017 article written by the great Alicia Freese, published about six weeks after the Harvey Weinstein case went nuclear. Freese got female Statehouse staffers and lobbyists to talk about their bad experiences — without names attached due to fear of reprisals. The conclusion: Sexual harassment was simply part of the atmosphere, something they had to be prepared for every day. The incidents ranged from inappropriate comments to propositions to actual assaults.

Afterward, legislative leaders asked the Office of Legislative Counsel (then spelled “Council”) to review Statehouse sexual harassment policy. A month later, Leg Counsel “flagged a dozen significant concerns,” according to a follow-up story by Freese. Chief among the concerns: The panels were made up entirely of lawmakers who might be seen as unfair judges of their own colleagues; complainants were told to confront their (alleged) abuser before filing a formal complaint, which is all kinds of awful; the accused lawmaker had more say in how the case was adjudicated than the complainant; and there was absolutely no transparency to the process.

In the wake of the Leg Counsel memo, then-House speaker Mitzi Johnson promised to institute a “gold standard” policy that would serve as a national example of how to prevent sexual harassment.

Indeed, the Legislature did adopt a reformed process — but the result was a real mixed bag. The bullshit about confronting your abuser was deep-sixed and complainants were given somewhat more say in the process, but the panels are still made up entirely of lawmakers and the process is almost entirely shielded from public view.

I wouldn’t call it a gold standard. Pewter, maybe. The proof: The new policy has gone almost entirely unused, while the work environment remains unfriendly to female staff and lobbyists.

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The Wide, Wide, Almost Infinitely Wide World of Lobbying

Once in a while, some media outlet will publish a formulaic piece about Statehouse lobbying. It happens when lobbyists and clients are required to report their spending with the Secretary of State’s office. A reporter will pore over the filings, point out the highest-grossing lobbying firms and some big-dollar clients, and get both-sides quotes from (a) those concerned with lobbyist influence and (b) those (mostly lobbyists) who think it’s not a big deal. And that’s it.

Last week, I started looking at the finance reports from the latest deadline, March 15, with an eye toward writing such a roundup. But the more I read, the more I realized that I didn’t know. After spending several days on the subject, I’ve concluded that the actual world of lobbying in Montpelier is just about unknowable. Those finance reports represent one sector of lobbying activity, and probably a small one at that.

Let’s start with a quick quiz. How many individuals are registered as lobbyists with the Vermont Secretary of State?

50?

100?

200?

How about… 604.

Six hundred and four.

Now, if all those people were roaming the Statehouse on the same day, it’d be like that episode of Star Trek with the overpopulated planet that needed Captain Kirk’s germs (transmissible only by a kiss with a beautiful blond) to thin the crowds. Most lobbyists aren’t there every day. Some of them are rarely, or never, there. But that’s the size of the universe we’re talking about.

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Things I learned at the Statehouse (or, My First Listicle!)

I’ve been blogging about Vermont politics for almost three and a half years (first at Green Mountain Daily and then here), but this was the first year I spent considerable time observing the Legislature at work. In previous years, I’d dropped in here and there, but I became an irregular regular this time around.

In addition to following the fates of particular bills, I also took away some overall lessons. Many of them actually positive. And here they are, in no particular order.

Our lawmakers work pretty hard. They get paid a pittance, and spend lots and lots of hours under the Dome. Seemingly endless hearings and debates, having to actually read and understand legislation: I wouldn’t have the patience for it. And their attendance record is shockingly good. Many of them have real jobs and/or travel long distances to Montpelier; on any given day, almost all of them are there.

— There’s always plenty of partisan rhetoric flying around, but people who disagree on the issues work surprisingly well together. This is especially true in committees, where a small group of folks work collaboratively, and cooperatively. It’s not all peaches and cream, but there were times when I was watching a committee debate and it was hard to tell which lawmaker came from which party.

Not that they were selling out; just that they were more interested in getting stuff done than in scoring political points.

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