Working with the Legislatureís Committees Chapter 8, pages 140-150
(reformatted for Internet presentation)
The committee system has been called ďthe factory floor of the legislative processĒ because committees accomplish most of the legislatureís work. To help manage their workload, legislators form committees and divide the thousands of bills proposed each year among them. Each chamber develops its own committees and each committee has its exclusive areas of jurisdiction. A chamber may have more than one dozen committees and these, in turn, may have one or more subcommittees.
The membership of committees is usually proportional to the party membership in each chamber. The party caucus recommends each lawmaker to the President or Speaker for appointment to membership on those committees in which the legislator has expressed an interest. The Speaker or President is then responsible for appointing members from both parties to committees and committee chairs from the majority party.
The Speaker or President refers bills to committees that are charged with considering them in detail. The committee of first referral is the committee with jurisdiction over the main subject matter of your bill. A bill must pass through the committee of first referral in order to proceed to subsequent committees, if any, and to votes by the full chamber. Committees limit their consideration to aspects of the bill within their authority and they do not review the recommendations of other committees of referral. Any committee with jurisdiction over your bill may amend or defeat it. Therefore, it is important to lobby the members and staff of all committees considering your bill to gain favorable action.
The committee chair decides the direction of each bill assigned to the committee. This may include whether or not it will be brought up in committee; if brought up, whether or not to hold a public hearing; and whether or not to assign it to a subcommittee.
The recommendation of the committee of first referral to pass, amend, or defeat your bill determines, in large part, its probability of enactment. This is because the chamber usually implements committee recommendations. Inaction or an unfavorable report will usually defeat your bill. So, your challenge is to gain favorable committee action on your bill.
Gaining favorable committee action
The Lobbying Team should learn the practice of the legislature and its committees regarding consideration of bills. You must know whether all bills are referred automatically to committees, and if not, how you will ensure that your bill will be referred. Usually, all bills are referred.
In some states, committees automatically consider all referred bills while in others this is the decision of the chair. There may be several reasons that the chair does not bring your bill before the committee: it may consume excessive amounts of committee time, it may not be likely to pass, it may be too unimportant relative to other bills, or there may be political reasons. When consideration of a referred bill occurs at the chairís discretion, you should lobby him or her to take it up even before your bill is assigned to the expected committee of first referral.
Before you ask the chair to take up your bill for committee consideration, you and your sponsor must discuss the advisability of having a public hearing, often also called a committee hearing. If a public hearing is held at the chairís discretion, you may want to ask for one when you ask him or her to take up your bill. Although the committee must consider your bill in order for it to become law, you do not necessarily need to have the public comment on it.
If a hearing would delay bill progress or you do not want to give your opponents opportunity to enter negative comments into the committee report, you may not want the chair to hold a hearing. On the other hand, a public hearing might be a great opportunity to make your case to the committee and have your supporters display public support. In some states, public comment is automatically taken.
Whether the chair holds or does not hold a public hearing, you should offer technical assistance to committee staff to ensure that they use the correct data in formulating their analyses and developing recommendations for the committee. Information and assistance from you and your technical experts may result in reports to your benefit.
Despite your wishes, the chair may choose to hold a public hearing if your bill impacts state government, the public, state policy, or is controversial enough that committee deliberations will benefit from citizen perspectives on all sides of the issue.
On the other hand, if your bill appears to have wide committee support, the chair may conclude that holding a public hearing will waste the time of the committee and the public. If the chair decides to invite the public to express its views on your bill, a portion of the committee meeting to consider your bill will be dedicated to receiving public comment. This will be the only formal opportunity that supporters and opponents will have to present the committee with their positions on your bill.
The chair may allow the public to express its views to the committee through formal testimony, citizen comments, or both. In formal testimony, the chair invites a few persons closely identified with the bill to give formal presentations. During citizen comments, all other persons attending the committee meeting may speak about the bill. The chair may choose to have formal testimony but no citizen comment, formal testimony followed by citizen comment, or no formal testimony but allow citizen comment. The chair must also decide when the hearing will occur, the length of time needed for the hearing, and whether to have the full committee or a subcommittee consider the bill and hold the hearing.
The taking of formal testimony usually occurs in the committee of first referral. Since each chamber has its own committee of first referral, each chamber may hold a public hearing on your bill. However, in practice, if one chamber holds a formal hearing on your bill the other does not duplicate efforts by holding its own hearings, unless each party controls one chamber in a partisan legislature. Further, any committee considering your bill may ask for citizen comments on the portion of the bill over which it has jurisdiction, and if testimony is given to a subcommittee, it will not be given again to the full committee.
Because you may appear before one or more legislative committees or subcommittees to explain your bill, you should maintain communication with your billís sponsor, the chairs of the committees to consider your bill, and their staffs. Even before the chair of the committee of first referral has decided to schedule a hearing, tell him or her that you would like to testify if a hearing is held. Once the hearing has been scheduled, immediately remind the chair and clerk or chief committee staff person that you would like to testify.
Notice of committee hearing
Most public hearings by the committee of first referral take place during pre-session or early in the session and are announced well in advance. A committee chair generally keeps a planning calendar that shows when certain bills might be heard. Contact committee staff regularly to inquire when your bill will be heard. As a matter of courtesy in some states and as a matter of course in others, a billís main sponsor is notified in advance of a hearing. Thus, you should ask your sponsor to notify you about a hearing on your bill as soon as the chair notifies him or her. It may be possible, however, that neither the sponsor nor you will know about the hearing until a few days before it is scheduled to occur. For this reason, have your testimony ready to be given at any time.
Preparing for the committee meeting and public hearing
Prior to the committee meeting in which your bill will be considered, you should meet with all committee members expected to support you or who could be convinced to support you. If a few weeks have elapsed since your last contacts, meet briefly with committee members to update them about the progress of your bill. Ask constituents of each committee member to send letters or make calls starting a few days before the committee meeting urging a favorable vote on your bill.
The preparations for formal testimony and citizen comment are similar. For formal testimony, update and revise the written and oral committee testimony developed by the Drafting Team prior to bill introduction. In addition to being factual, informative, and well researched, your committee testimony should convey the message that your goal is to help the legislators reach a good decision on a good idea, that is, your proposed bill. Your bill should advance the public good and its presentation must be succinct and focused. Use a bit of human interest to say why you care and why they should care about your issue.
In your written formal testimony, include legislative developments that have occurred since bill introduction, information about similar bills and administrative rules, names of co-sponsors, the other chamberís response to your bill, amendments, current estimates of fiscal and other impacts, and names of new supporters. Inform the committee of any positions taken by executive agencies, such as the Governorís office or administrative departments on your bill and briefly mention those who oppose you. Mention similar actions in other states and emphasize actions by bell weather or precedent setting legislatures. Condense the formal testimony for oral testimony and prepare a short written summary of your oral comments.
Before the committee hearing, determine how many copies of written testimony and summary of oral testimony to provide. Expect to give one copy to each committee member and the committee secretary and distribute additional copies to staff. Find out when your materials should be delivered. Ask if exhibits may be brought to the public hearing and ask if a helper may accompany you to aid your presentation.
Discover the conventions for testifying before the committee. For example, how are committee members to be addressed? In some states, the address is quite formal with seemingly every sentence preceded by, ďHonorable Chair X and members of the Committee Y.Ē Other states are less formal. Determine if a formal witness registration card must be submitted to the committee clerk prior to your testimony.
Ask the staff to estimate the length of time for the committee meeting, the amount of time that will be given to the formal testimony and citizen comments on your bill, the amount of time that you will have to speak, the percentage of time you should allocate for your formal presentation, and the percentage of time to allow for questions. Usually, the time allocated for formal testimony is short and ranges from several minutes per speaker in the committee of first referral to a minute or less in successive committees. Ask the staff for the names of others invited to testify about your bill and learn whether the committee members will ask questions. Anticipate the objections of your opponents as you redraft your testimony. Ask for the names of other bills likely to be considered at the same meeting, estimate the time given to these other bills, and determine if any of them are controversial. Ask for your bill to be considered early on the agenda so that you will not lose time to other bills that may require more time than expected.
In preparation for the committee meeting, the committee staff prepare bill analyses, fact-sheets, and other technical documents for committee members and the public. The legislative services agency may additionally provide analyses of economic, environmental, social, and state budget impacts. Amendments may have been filed with the committee secretary. The agenda for the public hearing, sign-in cards, staff-prepared materials, copies of bills to be considered, and proposed amendments are all available prior to the meeting. The agenda will include lists of bills to be considered, the sequence of consideration, and the time allocated for bill deliberation. Ask the staff to give you copies of these documents.
Use all of the time you have been allocated for your oral presentation. Plan every moment of your time before the committee. Remember that your bill will likely be but one of several considered during a meeting. Depending on where your bill is scheduled on the agenda and how well the chair manages time, even a well-prepared presentation may find itself in a race with time. Prepare a shortened version of your testimony in case time is unexpectedly cut short.
Your representative who gives formal testimony at the hearing should be a person who speaks well, understands the issues, and can calmly and succinctly answers legislatorsí questions, even hostile ones. Ideally, he or she will have an impressive title and credentials such as president or officer of your organization or recognized expert on the topic. If your representative does not have the required credentials or needs technical assistance, ask a member of your association or consultant who is credentialed to accompany him or her.
Your representative must be prepared to answer any challenges about his or her compliance with state lobbying laws, especially registration. Failure to conform to state lobbyist registration requirements can lead to a variety of actions that range from public embarrassment, to being forced to sit down, and possible enforcement action by the state.
You should now authorize your representative to bind your organization in agreements if moved by an offer or forced into one that seems beneficial to the association. This is the opposite of earlier instruction where authority to commit was intentionally denied to your lobbyists. Now, if you do not give your representative the authority to commit your association to a proposed amendment, he or she and your association become irrelevant to the amendment process and the amendments to your bill will go forward without your input.
Because your billís sponsor will also testify at the hearing, you must coordinate your two testimonies. They must be harmonious presentations that support each other and do not present conflicting messages. Reinforce one another from different perspectives to appeal to the broad audience of legislators.
As soon as the agenda for the meeting is published, study it to assess the appropriateness of your planned presentation and testimony. Locate the room in which the hearing will be held and note the room number and seating capacity. Because anyone may attend a committee meeting, you can make your presence more strongly known by filling the committee room with your supporters. If the room is small, prepare to have your supporters arrive early to ensure their seating. Instruct them about decorum, and if citizen comments are to be taken, the appropriate way to speak to the committee and coordinate what each might say.
Shortly before the hearing, you should be able to estimate the number of votes that will be cast for and against your bill. There may be one or two votes that are not known, but you must have a good idea as to whether or not the committee will vote to support your bill. If you think that the vote will not be favorable, then discuss other strategies with your sponsor. For example, should he or she request that the committee chair postpone consideration of your bill? Although delay is bad, defeat is far worse.
The committee meeting and public hearing
As the committee meeting is about to begin, you may sometimes find that the lack of a quorum threatens the meeting and, therefore, committee consideration of your bill. Rather than lose your opportunity, ask the chair to designate those members in attendance as a special temporary subcommittee. This subcommittee would have its required quorum and could proceed with a subcommittee meeting, take testimony, make recommendations for amendments, and issue a report to the full committee for action. If the chair agrees, the subcommittee meeting and your public hearing will proceed.
Before the committee meeting, you should provide the committee secretary with the correct number of copies of written testimony and summary of the oral presentation. Inform the secretary that you will refer to these documents during your presentation.
Bill consideration normally begins with discussion of the materials prepared by the legislative services agency staff and committee staff. The materials include an explanation of the bill and expected fiscal and other impacts. Next, the sponsor of the bill testifies about the merits of the bill, often explains it section-by-section, and answers committee membersí questions. He or she may bring others to assist or otherwise help make the case. Formal testimony will be taken after the committee finishes with the sponsor.
For formal testimony, one or more panels of advocates and opponents, often including representatives of affected government agencies, speak to the bill. Each makes his or her presentation until all invited speakers have spoken.
As you begin your testimony, inform the committee that your written testimony and its summary have been given to the secretary. It is likely that he or she has already given a copy to each lawmaker. If you bring an expert to assist you, announce the name and credentials of that person and state that he or she is there to answer membersí technical questions. Stay within the allotted time for your oral testimony and you will be allowed to complete it without interruptions. When you finish your testimony, thank the chair and the committee for allowing you to speak. The chair may allow committee members to question you about the bill and your statements or will ask them to hold their questions until later.
At the conclusion of formal presentations, the chair may invite citizen comments on your bill. Before speaking, make sure that you and your supporters have met the speakerís registration requirements, if any. Some states do not recognize a person wishing to speak to a bill unless, prior to the meeting, he or she has submitted a registration card to the committee secretary. The card asks for the speakerís name, affiliation, and pro or con position on the bill.
Except for adherence to time limits, and perhaps a requirement for speaker registration, the comment period is open to all relevant remarks. Several formats may be used, the most common is one in which citizens simply go the microphone, state their names, indicate who they represent, and disclose their views about a bill. An alternate format is for the chair to call persons to speak in the order in which they submitted their registration cards to the secretary. The chair may also separate proponents from opponents and ask the proponents to speak first. If comments become redundant, the chair may then ask subsequent speakers to limit comments to the provision of new information.
After formal testimony and during citizen comments, the chair may allow committee members to ask you questions. If you do not know the answer to a question, just say so, promise to find the answer, and get back to the committee member and other members promptly. This presents another lobbying opportunity. Never respond with hostility to unfriendly questions from committee members because they are seldom personal attacks. You should always maintain composure and diplomacy.
After closing the public hearing, the chair will resume committee deliberations by asking the committee for advice about the action to take on your bill. In the committee of first referral your sponsor, if a member, will make a motion or ďmoveĒ for adoption of the bill. If your bill is sent to subsequent committees of referral or if your sponsor is not on the committee of first referral, then you and your sponsor must find a supportive committee member to make that motion and otherwise champion your bill. The chair will then allow the committee discussion to take its course during which amendments may be proposed.
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