Editorial: House’s mute button needs some noise

Published 9:14 am Wednesday, July 27, 2016

One button has the power to silence a roomful of legislators.

Who knew?

“I don’t know really if anyone knew,” Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said regarding the installation of a button to mute all legislators’ microphones in the House chambers.

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The button on the House speaker’s podium, as well as one at the chief clerk’s desk, was installed while remodeling the chamber prior to the session. Reports indicate the buttons were requested by nonpartisan clerk staff and approved by House Speaker Kurt Daudt.

Davids said he didn’t know about them until he stepped up to the podium to fill in for Daudt. The Preston Republican said the primary purpose is to silence microphones during important presentations, such as the governor’s annual State of the State address. It also will help during tours and events when the live microphones can cause problems.

It makes sense to reduce the chance of added microphone noise during important messages. However, the fact that many lawmakers started this year’s session without knowing they could be silenced sends a potentially troubling message.

At least two Rochester Democrats have raised concerns, In an online post Rep. Kim Norton noted “This type of autocratic maneuver, the sneaky non-transparent decision-making is so disappointing and not befitting the position.”

Rep. Tina Liebling called it a “new low in Minnesota politics” and later told us the lack of information left lawmakers blindsided. “Members couldn’t even protest, because we didn’t know it was happening,” she said of reports the button was used during debates.

Liebling said she plans to propose rules for usage of the button when lawmakers return to St. Paul, noting current rules call for all House proceedings to be recorded.

We’re willing to believe the intent wasn’t so nefarious, but we’re more than a bit concerned about House video that appears to show lawmakers being silenced during unruly debate at the end of this year’s session.

The Minnesota House has long been known for its informal nature and attempting to tether that would be a mistake in these days of partisanship that has led the legislature’s inability to pass all bills as expected. Creating uncertainty through technology won’t help get things accomplished in a divided House.

Davids noted many other states don’t have the easy access to microphones given to Minnesota lawmakers, who can typically pick up a live microphone at their desks and start talking, even if out of order. Other states require lawmakers to ask permission before their microphones are turned on for a statement from the legislative floor.

We are proud to live in a state that believes in openness and provides our representatives a chance to be heard — whether we agree with them or not.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.

While we don’t object to efforts to improve sound quality for important events, or even silence microphones during tours, we do urge caution in use. Davids, who admits to accidently hitting the button once, says he’s never intentionally cut someone off.

“I never used it,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to.”

Neither do we.


— Rochester Post-Bulletin, July 18

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