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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Rep. Browning Defends Her Quorum Call: 'I Take Democracy Very, Very Seriously'

People spread out in the Vermont House chamber.
Mike Dougherty
Rep. Cynthia Browning, right, an Arlington Democrat, sits in the House chamber Wednesday. Browning called for a quorum, or a majority of House members, to vote on measures addressing COVID-19 despite plans to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

The Vermont House passed legislation addressing the COVID-19 crisis Wednesday evening. While lawmakers had come up with a plan to pass the bills with just a few members present to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus, they were held up for several hours when Arlington Democrat Cynthia Browning called for a quorum —a majority of members — to vote on the bills.

In the end, 76 state representatives traveled to Montpelier Wednesday and crowded into the House chamber to pass the bills. They included one bill extending unemployment benefits to workers who lost their jobs, another making it easier for health care providers to use telemedicine, and a third measure allowing the House to vote on legislation remotely to keep large groups from forming in the Statehouse.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Rep. Cynthia Browning Thursday about her decision to call for a quorum. The interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity. After the interview was recorded, VPR learned House Speaker Mitzi Johnson removed Browning from the Ways and Means Committee.

Henry Epp: I understand you took issue with the measure to allow remote voting. Because of your decision to call for a quorum, many House members who otherwise would have stayed home gathered in the Statehouse on Wednesday, potentially endangering their health and the health of others. Was it worth it, endangering public health to follow House procedure?

Rep. Cynthia Browning: Well, let me first clarify that I called for a quorum because I objected to [the] House Resolution ...allowing for remote voting and remote House sessions. This resolution was set up in a way that I found contradictory and circular. It says that we're gonna do remote voting and we're going to ratify doing remote voting by remote voting. And we don't have remote voting.

So I thought this was a circular resolution, incorrectly drafted, that undermined democracy of the House. So the Speaker chose to do the resolutions first. So that was when I called for the quorum. If she had dropped that resolution, I would not have objected to any of the other bills that were there. But she wanted that resolution. So she chose to call people in. I did not call people in.

Okay. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson told Seven Days that you did not raise any objections to this plan prior to Wednesday. So why not at least tell leadership in advance that you wanted a quorum or that you objected to this measure?

Well, I told them, I told a member of leadership on Monday that I did not support their plans and what they were doing. None of them ever got back to me. It was actually only after they finalized the rule about the remote proceedings on Tuesday night that I realized how concerned I was, and I needed to research it. And then things just kind of unfolded.

And she may not have understood what my objections were during the proceedings yesterday. I told one of her intermediaries that we could go ahead with the other material and not do the quorum if she would drop the resolution, and she would not.

Okay. But I mean, was this coming from a desire from your constituents or others to see these public process issues followed? Or was this entirely your own concerns over having a quorum in the House yesterday?

Well, I actually think that whenever they do things without a quorum, I think it's kind of questionable. I certainly understand the concerns about the COVID-19 virus. Nobody had to come to the Statehouse who didn't want to.

But 76 people did have to come in order to follow having a quorum, which you called for. 

They had to come because she called them to come. I wanted to stop the consideration of a particular resolution. And she wanted that resolution. And it was her decision to call them in. I didn't call them in.

But you understood the implications of calling for a quorum, which means a majority of House members in the chamber.

I knew that she could either drop the resolution or she could call for the quorum, and she chose to call for the quorum. And I think we did it in a very orderly way. I will note that the Congress of the United States has continued to operate in physical context and space. I understand it's not without its hazards. I understand the governor's emergency order, which did not actually go into effect until 5:00 p.m. yesterday after we were finished. And also the governor does not control control the Legislature. So I take democracy and representative democracy very, very seriously. And I think if you start cutting corners because you say you have an emergency, and you do have an emergency, you need to be careful what you throw overboard.

You mentioned Gov. Scott's order, which orders people to stay home for the most part and bans crowds of more than 10 people. Do you support that order? And if you do, didn't your actions contradict those instructions by the governor.

My understanding is that that order was to go into effect at five o'clock yesterday.

The order to ban gatherings of more than 10 was already in effect.

That's correct. However, they were already more than 10 people in the House chamber before any of the proceedings started. So we were already over that limit. 

But you support that measure by the governor?

I think that we all have to try to maintain social distance, but we also have to continue with essential business. And I believe that democracy is one of the essential businesses of government. I understand the need to create new ways to do our business remotely. But this resolution and what the Speaker chose to push through — an unknown system of unknown validity, with unknown capacity — I just think it was all done too soon. And just to continually use the emergency as a justification for compromising the ability of our representatives to serve their constituents, I just don't buy that.

Finally, the health department tries to trace the contact history of people who tested positive for coronavirus. How will you feel if it's discovered that someone contracted the coronavirus as a result of having to gather in the Statehouse because of your call for a quorum?

I'm not sure how you would verify that because I don't know if they can actually trace genetic material in that way. I would be very, very concerned and sad. But you will note that I put my duty to serve my constituents above my own safety by going up there and doing what I thought was right. I may not have done it the right way. Some people may have thought I was wrong, but I was trying to fix something that I thought was an error. So I certainly hope that no one contracts the virus. I don't know how you would tell that.

But I mean, if someone tests positive who was at the Statehouse on Wednesday, who came to the Statehouse because there was a call for a quorum, I mean, how would you feel about that?

I would be very sorry. I'm very sorry if anybody tests positive. But again, I don't know how you would tell that it was because they came [to] the Statehouse.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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