American idle: New Hampshire House holds drive-in session

It’s more like bumper-to-bumper than the usual shoulder-to-shoulder for members of the New Hampshire House, who are convening in their cars instead of the Statehouse

DURHAM, N.H. — The usual shoulder-to-shoulder was more like bumper-to-bumper for the New Hampshire House of Representatives on Wednesday as one of the world’s largest legislative bodies convened from the socially distant confines of their cars instead of the Statehouse.

The start of the legislative session was delayed by over an hour as cars lined up to get into the lot at the University of New Hampshire where the session was being held.

Legislators were greeted by a handful of protesters who felt the session has failed to reasonably accommodate members with disabilities. One sign read that drive-ins are for movies and making out, “NOT for the NH State Legislature!”

Rep. John Potucek, R-Derry, said he got there before 8 a.m.

“It’s uncomfortable and it’s unique,” he said. “It’s history.”

“When everybody gets their vaccinations and we go back to the House, we’ll go back to business as usual, and this will be a point of New Hampshire history which will never be repeated,” he said. “Hey, this is ‘Live Free or Die.’ We are here to do the business we were elected to do.”

Minority leader Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, said he was stuck in traffic for nearly an hour. “It kind of reminded me of going to a Patriots football game,” he said.

As business got underway, House Clerk Paul Smith advised, “If you’re having trouble with voting, please put on your hazard lights.” Some lawmakers also honked their horns to get the staff’s attention.

The 24-member Senate also convened Wednesday, but in a fully remote session. House Democrats had pushed for the same, but acting Speaker Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, said that wasn’t possible because the House hadn’t adopted rules to allow remote sessions. He also has said doing so would cost $300,000 to set up a secure voting system.

Instead, the 400 House lawmakers parked in alternating spots in staggered rows facing a large movie screen in Durham.

The House clerk and speaker will conduct the session from a heated platform, while members watch and listen via the screen or through their car radios. Microphones will be brought to their windows for questions and debate, and voting will conducted via electronic devices similar to those used during the indoor arena session.

But after House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, died of COVID-19 a week after being sworn in during the Dec. 2 outdoor gathering, Republican House leaders scheduled a drive-in movie style session to elect his replacement and adopt rules for the next two years.