In this era of Twitter and smartphones, citizens and lobbyists alike have all sorts of ways to reach out to lawmakers at a moment’s notice. But the West Virginia Legislature has rules meant to insulate its members from last-minute pressures while they’re debating and voting on bills.
Leaders in the House of Delegates reminded the majority Democrats of their rules during a recent closed-door meeting. One rule bars lobbyists from the House during floor sessions, and forbids any attempt to influence a lawmaker’s vote or opinion once the gavel sounds. A separate rule sends delegates to the chamber’s rear vestibule to use a cellphone or other electronic communication device during floor sessions. It also bans communicating by computer with someone outside the chamber “for the purpose of receiving information relating to any pending legislative matter” during sessions.
Whether a lobbyist “is in the gallery or outside the chamber, we’re not to be having those communications,” House Majority Leader Brent Boggs said Friday.
Boggs said the rapid evolution of handheld devices and social media helped spur the caucus discussion. While perhaps half the 100 delegates had cellphones when the Braxton County Democrat first arrived in the mid-1990s, Boggs said most now carry models with browsers and applications for Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
“The capabilities are substantially different,” Boggs said. “We just wanted to broaden the awareness.”
One or more legislative bodies in at least 36 other states have rules addressing electronic devices, according to a 2011 review by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Rules in several of these states take particular aim at lobbying. In Colorado, for instance, lawmakers in both houses are barred from sending or receiving electronic messages when a bill is up for a vote on passage.
These rules also often regulate filming or recording legislative business, or conduct in press or public galleries. But most often, such rules specifically target actions or noises that can disrupt a floor session or committee. The relevant rule in the Washington Senate speaks of “indecorous conduct.” Maine’s House of Representatives instructs its members to limit their use of smartphone-like devices and to “exercise high standards of discretion, conduct and decorum” with them.
Other states have no such rules. Illinois lawmakers routinely make calls and use computers while on the floor. Their Virginia counterparts have been known to accept texts during sessions. A 2008 incident in the Alabama Legislature illustrates the potential of e-lobbying.
A bill in that state’s House that aimed to encourage healthier lunch choices at public schools appeared ready to pass, until lawmakers began receiving emails and calls on their cellphones from local school officials. Following these 11th-hour messages, the measure failed.
West Virginia lawmakers from both parties said they agreed with rules meant to buffer them from such incidents.
“A lobbyist is not allowed to be on the floor of the House while we’re in session. They shouldn’t be allowed to sort of get around that by tweeting and texting members about what they would say if they were here on the floor of the House,” said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead.
But the Kanawha County Republican and other legislators also support engaging citizens through social media and technology. Armstead cited how the House and Senate stream audio of their floor sessions and committee meetings online. At least 28 lawmakers, meanwhile, have Twitter accounts. Several routinely tweet their roll call votes, or announce a bill that their committee is about to take up, or opine on pending measures or issues.
“That we think is appropriate,” Armstead said. “If you’re trying to put out to the public more information about whatever bills we’re working on, we don’t see anything problematic about that.”
Boggs said the House rules also target distractions.
“It depends on the context,” Boggs said. “Is someone taking time away from their duties of paying attention to the proceedings on the floor to do this? Or should they step to the back of the chamber or outside the chamber to make those kinds of communications?”
The three galleries above each chamber can allow the public clear views of lawmakers’ desks — and whatever they’re looking at. Armstead agreed that people don’t want to see legislators reading the newspaper or playing computer games. But he also doesn’t want the rules to overreach.
“Our job when we’re on the floor of the House is to pay attention to what’s being taken up, to be engaged in the debate and the discussion of the bills. There are certainly some restrictions to be placed,” he said. “I think we need to be careful about how we write rules or what we impose in terms of restrictions.”
Besides personal smartphones, House members have had laptop computers at their desks since 2002. Each delegate also received an iPad late last year. After lacking such technology in its chamber, the Senate last year issued iPads to its 34 members. Senate Majority Leader John Unger believes his is the first legislative body in the country to do so.
The goals in both chambers include a less paper-reliant system. Texts of bills, pending amendments, bundles of proposed agency rule changes and other materials in the Legislature’s internal computer networks have replaced the stacks of paper on lawmakers’ desks and committee tables.
As for e-lobbying, the Senate has a broad rule that forbids attempts to influence votes or opinions during floor session.
“The rule is meant to protect the member from undue pressure, during the pressure of the moment before a vote,” said Unger, D-Berkeley. “If a lobbyist violates that and a member reports it, we’ll pursue it. If a member violates it, they have to police themselves. They just have to be adults and follow the rules.”
Unger also noted that the Senate recently cracked down on attempts by lobbyists to get handwritten notes delivered to the floor. This time-worn practice has been seen at other state legislatures, including Virginia’s.