The day started with high hopes.
A group of right-wing Republican legislators planned to take to the Idaho Capitol Building in an unprecedented special session, pass legislation ending the state’s COVID-19 public health orders, and triumph over a dictatorial governor who they say has exceeded his authority by attempting to steer the state away from a spike in pandemic-caused deaths.
Just a few hours later, though, things ended with a whimper: Without a quorum, the handful of legislators present simply read a proclamation, spoke their piece, and called it a day. The state that Gov. Brad Little (R) had transformed from “a Republic to Monarchy or a Dictatorship,” in the words of anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy, remained unchanged.
Activists seeking to thwart the state’s public health authorities were, justifiably, a bit disappointed in the outcome.
“We could live under this tyranny for a full ‘nother year,” said Sarah Clendenon, a former Senate candidate and part of the anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Idaho, in a Facebook live video after the day’s festivities were over.
“If you’re not willing to do that, then you better get busy taking action,” Health Freedom Idaho’s Miste Karlfeldt added.
“Taking action” was supposed to be on the agenda Tuesday.
Legal analyses from the libertarian group Idaho Freedom Foundation the Bundy-affiliated Freedom Man PAC had asserted that the legislators didn’t need the governor’s permission to call a special legislative session if the state was under “enemy attack.” The groups urged legislators to view the COVID-19 pandemic as such under state law, and exercise their authority to call a legislative session and limit the governor’s power.
But the attorney general’s office and a team of lawyers representing the legislature disagreed, and numerous legislators present Tuesday said they’d felt pressure from leadership not to attend.
So, from the start of Tuesday’s proceedings, passing any kind of legislation was off the menu. “This is not a session of the Legislature,” said Rep. Judy Boyle. “We do not have a quorum.”
The right-wing representatives would have needed half of the members of the 70-person state house to show up to reach a quorum. The number who did was far fewer.
So, instead of taking legislative action, the group of 15 Republicans sat in the well of the chamber and traded statements about the state of the state.
“We are an equal branch, we shouldn’t have to beg the executive branch to do our business,” said Rep. Judy Boyle.
“We have become, um, almost non-essential in this particular thing,” chuckled Rep. Tim Remington, who sported an American flag tie. “It’s scary when you feel non-essential.”
Eventually, the talk grew more heated.
Contact tracing “is the most unconstitutional thing I’ve ever seen or heard of in my life,” asserted Rep. Christy Zito, speculating that the state would separate parents from their children if they’d been exposed to COVID-19.
“I truly believe a Civil War is coming if we do not put an end to what we’re seeing,” said Rep. Heather Scott, known as a fringe character even in crimson red Idaho, a few minutes later.
Toward the end of the event, Rep. Priscilla Giddings compared Idaho under the governor’s COVID-19 orders to Afghanistan, where she served as an Air Force fighter pilot.
“The absence of freedom is fear, and that’s terrorism,” she said. “We’re being terrorized in our own country.”
If the speechifying made the event feel like a typical day at the Capitol, Bundy’s crew — doing “crowd control” outside — made clear that it wasn’t
On the building’s steps, Bundy said the state was risking violence if it continued with its emergency orders, reported Heath Druzin of Boise State Public Radio News.
The communications director for the state’s Democratic Party, Lindsey Johnson, told TPM that the intra-GOP divide was “just a mess.”
“It should make Idahoans really question their leadership,” she added.
Reflecting on the day’s events, Karlfeldt, of Health Freedom Idaho, said she was thankful for the legislators who took a stand. But she didn’t try to hide her disappointment.
“Just like the rest of our state, and our nation, we’re divided on the most important issues.”