Reflections from the Executive Office

a legislative hearing

I’m sitting in a hearing room in Annapolis. During Session, I tend to spend hours in rooms like this. There will be 17 bills heard today. The room is packed with people – some will testify, some are observing, others are available to answer legislators’ questions that can’t be answered by the presenters at the speakers’ table. And I’m thinking what a strange activity a bill hearing is: necessary for transparency and an opportunity for input, but perfunctory in the sense that most often, the critical work on bills happens before and after a bill hearing. 

Because there are so many bills today,the audience is large. No one is allowed to stand in the hearing room so the overflow is out in the hallways, making a big buzz that we can hear inside when the doors open and close. There’s a PA system in the lobby outside so they can hear the proceedings, but today it does not seem to be working; when a bill number is called along with the names of those who signed up to testify, the testifiers take a while to arrive at the speakers’ table because they had to be found outside. 

The chair of the committee is patient. She calls on those who have signed up to testify(required to be done usually no later than ½ hour before the hearing), and she recognizes her colleagues who want to ask questions. She interrupts and sets things straight when too many people at the speakers’ table talk at once. She asks people to hurry along with their testimony if they’re repeating points already made. 

The group of six now at the table all oppose the bill. They seem to know each other and are in allied fields. Each has his or her own viewpoint, but there’s quite a bit of overlap in their comments. They don’t appear to have coordinated their testimony, which is too bad. The repetitiveness takes away from the impact of the few salient points in the argument. They interrupt each other, and the chair calls a halt to that, too. Some of them are reading their written testimony (customarily handed in at least an hour before the hearing so all the legislators have a copy), which is really tiresome and, I think, ineffective.

Some of the questions from the legislators are rhetorical or argumentative and some are simply inquisitive. It’s a large committee – there are 12 men and women in the room now,including two staffers who sit aside the chair. The legislators come and go pretty freely. Some leave and come back quickly with a cup of water or coffee (presumably). Others leave and don’t come back. They may be talking to a constituent or stakeholder or presenting their own bill in some other committee. Some who haven’t been in the room since the start of the hearing show up and take a seat. While they are at their assigned places, with name plates affixed to the desks so the audience can see who they are, they look at their phones or tablets, read documents, whisper to each other, take notes from or have conversations with their aides who come and go, and listen to the testimony. It must be hard to stay perfectly attentive throughout a long afternoon. One of my colleagues quoted a former legislator from Oregon who said,“Session is long hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” 

I haven’t experienced the terror, although I am always nervous before testifying, even though I’ve probably given testimony in just such rooms at least a hundred times. It’s a feeling that’s irrational that I can’t control.And like the jitters before a swimming meet – once you’re in the water,you’re not nervous anymore. 

This bill hearing is over, and there are six legislators in the room. Is there a way to have meaningful public input and an open exchange of ideas that contribute to better law without the necessity of a hearing?