Rep. Cynthia Browning of Arlington lost her seat on the Vermont House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday. That came a day after Browning insisted upon a procedural move that resulted in scores of lawmakers getting into their cars and driving to Montpelier, at the same time Gov. Phil Scott's "stay at home" order to fight the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic was being implemented.
It's unfortunate that the Ways and Means Committee is losing Browning, a member with an economics degree and aptitude for economic and financial matters. It's doubly unfortunate because it didn't have to happen: Browning did not need to call her fellow members back to Montpelier in the middle of a public health crisis on Wednesday on a procedural maneuver. Not when there's serious risk of community spread of the virus.
Legislative committees serve at the pleasure of leadership. Browning knows that, too, and it's not a surprise that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson decided she needed to make a change.
Browning, a Democrat and one of southern Vermont's longest-serving House members, lit the match on a statewide political firestorm Wednesday when she called for a quorum on the state House of Representatives' vote on a package of bills responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It had been decided beforehand, via multiple conference calls and emails among House members and their party leaders, that given the circumstances and the close working quarters of the Statehouse, a group of 12 leaders would vote on behalf of members on Wednesday. Usually, the House needs a quorum of 76 members — one more lawmaker than half of the House's 150 members — to vote on a bill.
Given the unusual circumstances, members of all three parties and independents had agreed that this time, leadership could speak for the members — in an action that would later be affirmed remotely by a three-fourths majority.
But one of the provisions in the package of bills, which had already passed the state Senate, provided for remote voting through the end of the current term. Browning, concerned there was no method in place for remote voting, rose to ask if a quorum was present, setting the mad dash for Montpelier in motion.
On the House floor, according to published reports, Johnson told Browning that "Bringing 76 people back here puts the health of Vermonters at risk." Browning was unmoved.
On her Facebook page, Browning explained her reasoning. The bill in question "was structured in a profoundly circular and illegitimate way," she said, adding that the system for remote debate and voting had yet to be proven. "I have grave concerns about how well it will work to allow representative participation, given all the difficulties of technology and poor internet connections," she said.
Browning blamed Johnson for forcing the remote voting measure to a floor vote. "If the Speaker had been willing to abandon this illegitimate resolution, she could have passed the other bills without calling everyone in."
Johnson told us that multiple House committees took part in discussions on the remote plan and came to a consensus on the details. Party leaders reached out to members for consensus on the plan to allow leaders to vote for members by proxy on Wednesday. There were ample opportunities for Browning to have brought her concerns to fellow members, to leaders, and to the public, before she unilaterally decided that her fellow members had to vote on the bill in person.
Perhaps that's the most difficult part of this: That one person's decision, however well-intentioned, caused such trouble for so many people.
Sticking to one's guns can be a positive trait or a negative trait, and it often depends on where one stands on the issue at hand. When someone's on your side, it's standing up for what you believe in. When they're not, it's grandstanding, or stubbornness.
In normal circumstances, we would understand Browning's desire to use the rules to stick up for what she believes and ask pointed questions. She is not the Wicked Witch of the West some have made her out to be. Indeed, institutions are poorly served when honest disagreement is quashed and leaders surround themselves with loyalists who go along to get along and never point out the emperor has no clothes.
But there's a time and a place for everything. This wasn't it.
Browning was surely convinced she was right to call a quorum. But she did not have the votes behind her, as evidenced by her lone "no" vote on the remote voting proposal. That makes her actions less of a brave stand and more of a tantrum that, given the grave circumstances of this health crisis, is difficult to defend.
Browning has served her district well, and her stewardship of the Battenkill River and close eye on the state's finances have been welcome. Whether she can move past this episode with her colleagues and serve the Benington-4 district effectively remains to