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Assembly returns to work in person

When the novel coronavirus first emerged and scientists issued dire, if incorrect, predictions of death on a medieval scale, every government and private organization took extraordinary measures to avert disaster. Now we know a lot more about the spread and relative dangers of COVID-19. Most organizations are now returning to something resembling normal, with reasonable precautions, unless their oppressive state and local governments are forcing them to so otherwise.

Like many other organizations, the Wisconsin Assembly revised its rules last year to permit members to attend committee meetings and floor sessions virtually via videoconference. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has now said that the Assembly would return to relatively normal operations in the new year. The Democrats have protested and want to continue to allow members to attend virtually.

Vos is right. The Assembly should return to normal operations with reasonable precautions. It is not only a matter of leadership; it is a matter of good government.

First, it must be acknowledged that the decision to allow the Assembly to operate virtually was done at a time when the science, as we knew it then, dictated that to do anything otherwise would have been to invite unprecedented carnage. It was the right decision. Now that we have been living with COVID-19 for almost a year, the science tells us that for most people, the risks are far less calamitous than originally forecast. We are all thinking about how to return to normal.

Humans are naturally social animals and the interaction between them is complex. As each of us relates with our families, colleagues, and strangers, it involves an intricate and nuanced exchange of verbal and nonverbal communications and social cues in order to convey meaning and intent. Many of us who use virtual technology in our work, personal, or educational interactions know that the technology is useful with a few advantages, but it does not replace the full experience of human interaction.

Effectively operating a large collaborative body like the Assembly requires a lot of discussion, collaboration, debate, and, most importantly, relationships. Those relationships are forged in the hallways, local eating establishments, parking lot, offices, and other physical spaces where elected leaders and staff members share the same experiences together. These relationships cannot be built on a video screen for a couple of hours a day.

For those who decry the decline of consensus and collaboration in our elected bodies, making them virtual will only make it worse. Consider the people debating politics on social media as they retreat into their information silos and ideological fortresses and imagine them writing legislation that will govern your life. The results would be predictably bad. Some things just have to be done in person.

Furthermore, let us not pretend that any but the tiniest minority of our representatives are actually isolating at home. While the Democrats insist on doing their jobs virtually, most of them are continuing to go shopping, eat at restaurants, meet with friends and colleagues, spend time with their extended families, work in their businesses, and generally go about living their lives. They might be wearing masks and keeping their distance, but they are going about their lives like millions of other Wisconsinites. Their insistence on doing their jobs as elected representatives virtually is conveniently selective.

In his letter imploring Speaker Vos to keep the Assembly virtual, Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz conveniently neglects to provide any standard by which he and his colleagues would willingly attend in person. Presumably, the Democrats want to do their jobs virtually in perpetuity — or at least until they no longer need to posture that COVID19 is more dangerous than it is.

In Hintz’s letter, he concludes with, “As elected leaders, we are examples for our communities and our actions matter.” Indeed, they do. Assembly Democrats can lead by example by taking reasonable precautions and going to work just like their constituents do.

(Owen B. Robinson is a conservative political commentator and former West Bend resident. He can be reached at owen@bootsandsabers. com.)

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