Government , Health

Congressional Hun-Kah Session in question amid COVID-19 outbreak

With coronavirus COVID-19 spreading concerns at issue, Osage Nation Congressional Speaker Joe Tillman declared an emergency for the Legislative Branch by directing the Congressional offices to be closed to the public and plans are underway to come up with alternative meeting procedures for the 2020 Hun-Kah Session starting March 30.

The 12-member Sixth ON Congress is slated to convene for the 24-day spring session, which is one of two regular sessions mandated by the 2006 Osage Constitution. But with the rapidly changing and evolving situation on the coronavirus spread, the Congressional Affairs Committee discussed session alternatives at a March 18 meeting.

“The coronavirus disease known as COVID-19 has spread throughout the United States and continues to do so, inching closer to the territorial borders of the Osage Nation,” Tillman said in his statement. “The people at highest risk for severe symptoms and even death are elders and those with underlying health conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends canceling all gatherings of more than 10 people for organizations that serve older citizens. There are Members of Congress that fall into the high-risk category and other Members who regularly care for elder family members that are also high risk. I make this Emergency Declaration to let our Members and the public know that we are taking this pandemic seriously as a real threat to our communities.”

On March 16, Tillman said the Congressional offices in the ON Capitol Building along Pawhuska’s Main Street will be closed to the public until further notice due to the coronavirus spread. In the meantime, Congressional staff and members are available by phone and email.

As of March 23, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported there are 81 in-state positive cases of coronavirus and two deaths, which was reported by local media. At press time, there were no positive cases in Osage County. 

“With that in mind the Osage Nation Congress will be considering options for delaying or utilizing alternate procedures for meetings over the next few weeks, including on how to proceed with our Constitutional duty to hold a regular legislative session that is set to begin on March 30,” Tillman said. “As we consider those options I am aware that none will be ideal, but we must put the safety of our elders and those with underlying health conditions first in a time when the risk of contracting COVID-19 could prove deadly.”

At the meeting and at Tillman’s invitation, Wah-Zha-Zhi Health Center CEO and former Congressman Dr. Ron Shaw spoke with the committee. “In the wake of multiple closures, governmental closures, court proceedings that have been closed or abbreviated, all of a sudden what I would have scoffed at a month ago, all of a sudden I’m busy implementing up there at the clinic to try and reduce and contain any future cases that may confront the clinic. As far as session, I think your very best method is to develop a video conferencing mode where you can – I don’t know if that’s allowed by Congressional rules, I’ll leave that up to you to decide – but I think that presents the least risk … including those guests that come in, if there’s a remote site for which they could comment by Zoom or Skype or what ever appropriate videoconferencing,” Shaw said.

Another method to consider with risks would be to allow session to continue as normal, but to require screening of all Congress members and staff beforehand each day and to restrict the number of people in those sessions and committee meetings, Shaw said. Any person with a fever and symptoms should not be allowed in the Congressional office, Shaw said of this method, noting WHC staff are screened like other healthcare facilities.

Congresswoman Alice Goodfox expressed concern for logistics if screening is done for Congress members before session. She also raised concerns about fairness because other government employees are working and are not being screened. “I don’t want to go the route of doing something for us, ourselves elected officials and our employees, that is not being provided to all departments of the Nation,” Goodfox said.

Congressman Eli Potts noted the bare minimum of CA committee members to make a quorum was physically present, but he was uncomfortable attending given the coronavirus spread situation. “I think many healthcare professionals have made the recommendation that this – even having eight members in a room – is a risk and one I don’t think that we need to be taking.”

Congresswoman Maria Whitehorn said she also favors meeting by video conference given the spread risks, especially to elders. Whitehorn said she is caring for her father in Hominy while her two sisters, who work as healthcare nurses, stay away to limit spread risks. “Yes we want to protect this (Congressional) body, but ultimately, it’s our community, (coronavirus) has no boundaries, it has no age groups, children can get it and recover from it quite easily… My opinion is we need to figure out how to videoconference this table, this chamber does not allow for us to do the type of (social distance) spacing that we need to have,” Whitehorn said.

Second Speaker Paula Stabler, who is the CA committee chair, said the Congress is required by the Constitution to meet every six months and postponing the entire session is not an option because the Congress can only postpone up to three days during the regular session. She also proposed rule changes could take place in order to allow Congress to meet remotely during the regular and any special sessions needed during the coronavirus emergency. Stabler also noted another option to consider would be for the Congress to meet on Day 1 and then adjourn with plans to meet in special sessions.

As the committee considered options for meeting, Potts said another option would be to meet on Day 1 of session as a Congress and let the session continue with the Speaker recognizing every three days that there is no quorum due to Congress members being physically absent due to the coronavirus situation. With no quorum present, the Speaker would publically state there is no quorum and would adjourn the session date and that would continue until a future date when the situation improves, Potts proposed.    

Goodfox said she opposed the idea to meet every three days with no legislative actions taken due to no quorum. “I don’t want to sound like I’m not sympathetic, I’m taking care of elders … I’m the next at-risk (as a diabetic), we’re all going out and doing things, I assume everyone’s still stopping to get gas, I assume everyone here is going to the grocery store … I still think the hybrid approach of whoever feels like they can’t come in, if they feel more comfortable calling in and for those of us willing to go through a screening (if we go that route) are comfortable coming in that we should just go that route and proceed with session.”

Congresswoman Shannon Edwards, who attended the meeting electronically, said she agrees a unified Congressional approach is needed to allow the session to continue with electronic means. She also said she is in self-isolation in the Oklahoma City area after being in contact with three people who are awaiting coronavirus testing results.

Congressional Clerk Shana Robedeaux said any proposed changes to the Congressional Rules to allow meeting by electronic means would require eight votes in-person first.

After committee discussion, the committee voted to authorize Tillman as Speaker to issue a state of emergency for the Legislative Branch with assistance from Congressional legal counsel.

For more information on the Legislative Branch, filed legislative bills/ resolutions and committee meetings, visit: https://www.osagenation-nsn.gov/who-we-are/legislative-branch