There was not much fanfare, but the official reopening of the Oregon’s Capitol last week should be good news for all voters.
Readers may remember the capitol was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic and, as usual, the closure kicked off plenty of political angst between Democrats and Republicans. In the Senate, GOP lawmakers voted no on many issues not related to COVID-19 in protest. In the House, Republicans declined to suspend rules that require bills to be read completely, which slowed down the legislative session.
The stance of the Republicans was, at least in theory, a good one. Their views where the capitol is the people’s building and should not be closed off to the public under any circumstances.
But Democratic lawmakers, such as House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney said in a joint statement the closure was necessary to safeguard people from COVID-19.
They termed the decisions to be “difficult” but they “consulted with infectious disease doctors and public health officials about what changes were needed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in the capitol.”
Access to public buildings where lawmakers do the people’s business is hardwired into the American psyche, as it should be. We live in a democracy and that means lawmakers must be accessible to voters.
However, on this specific issue closing the capitol building was the right move. Whether it should have been closed as long as it was seems to be open for debate. Lawmakers like Kotek and Courtney did the right thing during a time when the COVID-19 virus crisis was still very real and a threat to all.
Yet there is no denying that cutting off access to the activities of lawmakers hurt democracy. Anytime the halls where lawmakers roam or committee meetings where legislators gather information to make decisions are blockaded, the people lose.
The founders created our system as one that relies on the interplay between voters and lawmakers. Without it, our system does not operate as efficiently as it should.
Lawmakers did not have much choice regarding the closure of the capitol building and, as a one-time measure to avert a crisis, it was the right decision. Such decisions, though, should always be made with careful thought and with the knowledge that the overall goal is always to safeguard democracy.