Filling the bill in Montpelier: The Legislature goes back to work

This past week we officially put 2013 into the history books. Looking back, we all learned to twerk. Kim and Kanye and Kate and William had babies. Alec got mad. So did Reese.

And the real news? Tornadoes, a cataclysmic civil war, and a terrorist attack in Boston. A health care revolution ushered in by a web site fiasco. Meanwhile, Dennis Rodman went to North Korea the way Richard Nixon went to China, although Rodman was not a sitting U.S. President and brought way more tattoos.

Right here in Vermont, a nuclear power plant announced it was shutting down. Finally. We became the fourth state to allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs. And our debate about whether to base F-35s in Burlington sometimes got as loud as a fighter jet engine.

And now it is 2014, and tomorrow the new year really begins. I know, tomorrow is actually January 6th. I realize that it has been 2014 for half a week now. But with Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on Wednesdays this season, the world grew unexpectedly quiescent the past two weeks. Sure, many of us worked – and worked hard. But entire businesses closed their doors for half a month. I have friends who were on furlough or vacation for a mighty impressive 16 days.

But Monday they will be back in their offices and cubicles. And this Tuesday morning the Vermont legislature returns to Montpelier – always a sign for me that it’s time to roll up my own sleeves and get back to work.

The Vermont legislature really is a citizen legislature, and that is one of the big reasons why I applaud their work. I don’t always agree with them and I certainly have my own partisan biases. But everyone who is willing to add state senator or state representative to their schedule – while, more often than not, holding another job – is a seriously good egg. After all, they will be in Montpelier at least four days a week between now and some point in May. Their pay is a whopping $660 per week, plus a lodging and food per diem. No one goes into Vermont politics to get rich.

This year they will be debating (among many other things) health insurance (it really is Sisyphean); banning the use of hand-held electronics while driving; raising the minimum wage; legalizing marijuana; and whether a person must wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. They will have to ascend learning curves on a long litany of issues. They will be away from home for huge chunks of the winter and spring. And they will have to be polite when lesser people would allow their inner snark to rear its mean-spirited face.

So why do it? I asked Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden and the Majority Leader, why he adds state senator to his life as a father, husband, novelist, and English professor at the University of Vermont. I asked him what he gets out of the job. His response?

“Lots of frustration and – occasionally – very deep satisfaction. Someone comes to you because they’re being disadvantaged or hurt by someone else, and you realize there should be a law against that. And the House and the Senate and the Governor agree. And suddenly there is a law against that. It’s a satisfaction deeper than the Marianas Trench.”

Indeed. Sometimes, you can’t just – as Baruth added – watch “the world go spectacularly off the rails.” You need to add public service to your priorities.

And so once more this Tuesday I will watch the Vermont legislature go to work. This planet makes its shares of mistakes, and Vermont is no exception. We are, alas, not exempt from human foibles and frailties. From impressively bad judgment. From spending too many hours watching Honey Boo Boo Child, because it is just so much easier to watch stupid TV than it is to figure out the best way to make sure that Vermonters have health care.

But it’s nice to know that there are people in Montpelier who are willing to make that sort of sacrifice.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on January 5, 2014. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives in paperback in April.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.