May 13, 2011

An Endurance Contest in Futility

Justin Katz

For the benefit of those who've never done so, Harry Staley, Chairman of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, describes the experience of testifying (or trying to) before a General Assembly committee:

Ask anyone, other than a union or welfare-industry lobbyist, who has testified on legislation of major statewide interest in the "people’s house," also known as the Rhode Island State House. It is an endurance contest prefaced by the chairman's notification that, with the exception of two people, the proponent of the bill and one opponent, everyone else will have from 1.5 to 2 minutes to speak. ...

It is common for a hearing that everyone knows will draw an outsized crowd to be convened in a room inadequate to accommodate those who attend. Most people must stand before and during the hearing, and the overflow must stand in the hall outside the room. Among them are the elderly, the physically challenged; everyone must literally "suffer" to be heard. Three hours of standing is an ordeal that drives some to give up and leave. Is it any wonder that there are those who suspect that this is a planned procedure?

Add an observation from former state representative Rod Driver regarding the held for further study mess:

After voting to "hold the bills for further study," many committee members go home. Why waste their time listening to testimony? There may be only four or five members of a 15-member committee still present when citizens who have waited hours to testify for or against a bill finally get their chance.

In the narrow scope, the system is designed to put decisions in the hands of a few legislative leaders, and in the broader scope, it's designed to make voters feel as if they're standing against the inevitable, making participation quaint, but futile. Even advances in transparency — such as videotaping hearings — can contribute to the sense that the public's role is just to watch, not to participate.

What would happen were public disapproval of that fact to swell, I don't know. It'd be nice to think that pressure would inspire change, but as experience with separation of powers suggests, we'd be looking at a decade of intricate political maneuvers just to get minor improvements in the system... that wouldn't be followed for another decade while uniquely interested citizens pursued measures to force compliance. And as the generally high level of apathy illustrates, it'd be surprising if there were a swell over hearings that most Rhode Islanders don't know occur in the first place.

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I know that it's a stretch to imagine something like this in Rhode Island because it borders on fantasy.

How about, as suggested, videotapes of a weeks worth of hearings to be played on a continous loop on Cox? Add to that, the specific hearing should be videotaped and immediately accessible on the Secretary of State webpage.

Then give John Q. the ability to be heard through a "reveiw period" where written comments could be submitted and contemplated by our elected officials. Of course we'd have no way of knowing whether they are read or not but any aknowledgement of being heard by our elected officials would go a long way toward easing that helpless feeling that the productive Rhode Islander feels. At the least, any correspondence could be archived with all the other public records. Good luck trying to get them out of the archives, but that's another story.

This is not rocket science, but this idea would be as frightening as brain surgery to many/most of our representatives.

Secrecy is the cornerstone of corruption. Silencing the populace is always found along the path to dictatorship. Especially bright light exposes the dirt that often goes unseen under normal conditions. It's time to turn up the lights with the simple modern technology we already have.

Posted by: swamper at May 13, 2011 7:17 AM

There is nothing we can do to force the Assembly members to listen to testimony. If they don't want to be bothered or have their minds made up, there's nothing anyone can do to change that.

However if someone like Operation Clean Gov't or someone else wanted to, a good thing would be to have someone at every hearing and take attendance, including how long each committee member stayed and release a report card for each Rep/Senator with their "attendance percentage". Let their constituents know how much of their job these people are doing.

Posted by: Patrick at May 13, 2011 9:02 AM

Hmm, where I have heard this kind of stuff before?

"Most people must stand before and during the hearing, and the overflow must stand in the hall outside the room. Among them are the elderly, the physically challenged; everyone must literally "suffer" to be heard. Three hours of standing is an ordeal that drives some to give up and leave."

Oh yeah, it was here, from Steven Brown, Sen. Paul Jabour and others at the State House, in reference to the Voter ID bill:

"The bill received sharp criticism from groups including the NAACP and ACLU who said it would create obstacles for voters who are disabled, poor, elderly or otherwise less likely to possess the right identification.

Critics of the bill mounted a spirited attack on the bill but failed to convince many in the Senate. Sen. Paul Jabour, D-Providence, warned his fellow Democrats that the bill might prevent some of their supporters from voting."

So they don't like the Voter ID and come out against that, but they don't say a word when people are lined up in the hallways for hours, some unable to sit and causing some to go home, prevented from participating in the process. But then it's ok?


Posted by: Patrick at May 13, 2011 9:11 AM

Harry Staley is correct on this, something needs to be done to make legislative hearings more accessible. Speaking on behalf of Common Cause (or as Justin puts it, our group of "uniquely interested citizens") we proposed putting webcams in all of the hearing rooms. The video could be streamed on the GA website and archived there for later viewing. We are the only state in the country that doesn't have streaming audio or video of its legislature online. Thanks to Senator Hodgson for sponsoring S 316 and Representative Hearn for sponsoring H 5805. This would not require hiring more people for Capitol TV, or building an annex onto the State House. It's a simple solution to move our state into the current century.

Posted by: John Marion at May 13, 2011 9:39 AM

The whole disabled, disenfranchised, and otherwise challenged, you know, the ones that are working for a living and simply can't revolve their lives around the GA thought also crossed my mind.

Posted by: swamper at May 13, 2011 9:45 AM

And of course, it's the non-public hearings that GA members have in their private offices, at country clubs or in restaurants with paid lobbyists from the special interests, including unions, poverty and race "advocates" and gay groups that really influence the legislation. The public committee hearings are purely for show.

Posted by: BobN at May 13, 2011 10:12 AM

Speaking as someone who is a vocal critic of much of the process at the Assembly I have to disagree on one point. I understand the frustration of people who wait for a long time to testify, but at some level that is inevitable. Even the largest committee room only holds so many people and there are only so many chairs. The committee calendars, particularly the very busy ones, are quite long and the issues that draw the most public attention are by definition the ones where the most people will show up.

If 35 people want to come testify on Issue X that is going to cause some long waits. I also understand why witnesses get frustrated when told they have limited time to speak, but anyone who has attended these hearings will find that very often much of the testimony is repetitive. So a balance must be struck between allowing the person who signed up first (or eighth etc.) to testify for ten minutes, often repeating what the person just before them said, while causing the person who signed up sixteenth to wait that much longer. It is rare, except in the most swamped hearings (gay marriage being a prime example) that the time limits are actually enforced even if they are announced. In my experience, the committee chairs do their best to move things as efficiently as possible but even under the best of circumstances, some people will become frustrated.

John Marion's suggestions above are good ones. The fact that many House hearings are televised now (and are often repeated on Capitol TV) is also a plus. Every hearing should be broadcast in some fashion however.

Finally, I disagree that the hearings are all for show. Certainly they are only one piece of the process but I can tell you that when a mob of people shows up, particularly when that mob is opposed to something, people listen, even the Democratic leadership. This is a point I keep making to the business community and people concerned with our fiscal situation generally. Public pressure matters. Elected officials usually respond to it. That is a universal truth of democratic/republican government - it just often takes more time than it should.

Posted by: Brian C. Newberry at May 13, 2011 11:11 AM

Thanks for contributing, Mr. Newberry!

One of the most exhilarating moments of my life was testifying at the state house. Unfortunately, several of the committee members were literally falling asleep during the evening, and by the time I got up there were only five or six left.

Would it help to have coffee on-hand? Switching to a full-time legislature? Or having more contentious issues discussed on weekends?

Posted by: mangeek at May 13, 2011 1:15 PM

It is the very stifling atmosphere of the place, a kind of droning that puts one to sleep even if you only have to spend an hour in the halls and meeting rooms. It is no wonder such poor results are produced. They should close the place except for historical tours and perhaps the Governors office and conduct all business before the legislature electronically.

Posted by: justasking at May 13, 2011 1:48 PM

I was actually always curious why voting on bills isn't done asynchronously, electronically, and privately until the vote is actually 'due'. I imagine it would reduce the power of 'dealmakers' and 'arm-twisters' and get results closer to how legislators really feel.

So, for instance, as a legislator you could log-in and vote 'yea' or 'nay' on any issue headed your way on the schedule, at any time. You could also change your vote at any time before roll is called.

Posted by: mangeek at May 13, 2011 2:42 PM

Bob is right about the lobbying being done at country clubs and swanky restaurants...for the corporate types who get the big tax breaks
Advocates for the needy and SSM supporters doing business at Capital Grille and Federal Reserve? Better duck those flying pigs.

Posted by: bella at May 13, 2011 8:51 PM

When I was in college in the 60s the whole State of RI government operated out of the state house. We are talking about all departments and divisions. Now there is mainly the GA and governor’s office plus GA committees. Most everyone else has been moved out to their own buildings. A lot got accomplished daily with paper, pen, pencil, typewriter, telephone, fax, photostat, carbon paper, mimeograph machines, other duplicating machines and the ability to walk across the hall to clarify an issue! Now everyone has to drive almost to another city!

My understanding is the GA recognizes there is a need for a larger building with better public access to public hearings. My understanding the GA has their eyes on the old DMV building and land across the street for a new facility and has funds put aside for its construction but not while there is the ongoing financial problem.

Posted by: Ken at May 14, 2011 2:55 AM

Once again, Bella demonstrates her lack of knowledge (a euphemism for ignorance).

I doubt she has ever actually been to a real hearing or seen a paid, special-interest lobbyist up close.

The "non-profits" that suck taxpayer blood to provide spurious "services" to the "needy" are extremely well-funded. Look at the salaries they pay their top executives. The union bosses, themselves highly paid, control enormous funds extorted from their union members.

If business lobbies were so powerful behind the scenes, then why would they be getting screwed so badly by the state government?

And it was you, Bella, who introduced the names of specific restaurants, not me. I included these as one type of location. The point was that these lobbyists get special, private access to make their campaign funding and other corrupt deals with the politicians.

Posted by: BobN at May 14, 2011 7:45 AM

Tax cuts for the rich, Bob...when they were put in, they were supposed to save our state. None of those pesky union types or poverty pimps were sitting at the table in any of Providence's finer dining establishments to prevent that legislation from being rammed through.
And how are those tax cuts working out for you, Bob? I admit I wouldn't know...didn't get one.

Posted by: bella at May 14, 2011 1:59 PM

"Tax cuts for the rich"? You mean the lower rate in exchange for elimination of the flat tax? Not much of a cut. The better question would be, "How many more would have joined the exodus of producers had that adjustment not been made?"

Did anyone besides Bella think that this single action would "save our state"? It's going to take a lot more than that to save this state from its suicidal behavior.

You know, if you put as much effort into doing something with your life as you do being resentful, you might experience a higher tax rate.

Posted by: BobN at May 14, 2011 2:22 PM

There will always be another progressive scapegoat, no matter how inconsequential in reality. "Disaster Don", "tax cuts for the rich", etc... Somehow they never get around to turning their attention to the veto-proof Democratic General Assembly full of liberals, party hacks, progressives, and union advocates that passes all the laws and the budget in Rhode Island. No, they say, it's the handful of moderate Republicans left in the state - they sabotage everything from within. What a pitiful exercise in self-delusion.

Posted by: Dan at May 14, 2011 2:33 PM

Bob, you'll be happy to know I finally got my tax cut. Yes, the middle class in Rhode did get a little tax relief, thanks to that un-American radical socialist we put in the White House three years ago. I'm sure members of the Tea Party appreciated Obama giving in to tax cut mania, too.

Posted by: bella at May 14, 2011 2:36 PM

Much as I loath our Governor who lost by a landslide, I'm comforted knowing that the whole shebang is controlled by the left wing. If only for the fact that there is only one party to blame for the future blunders that the originate in the GA.

Somehow I think we'd all be better off if there were exactly zero Republicans in the GA for a term or two. It is only then, when nobody else is around to point the finger at, will people wake up. The only downside is that we've yet to hit bottom. The way I see it, the only way out of the mess we're in will come from self destruction from within. A civil sort of thing, if you will.

Posted by: swamper at May 14, 2011 8:24 PM

The GA could not care less about any of us--obviously. They only care about the money they can make from being in the GA--not the pay of course but the payoffs. And the ego trip of being a big shot--even though RI is basically a mid-size city so these morons are like dog-catchers in a real state.

I have no idea why anyone would vote for a Democrat in this state--they have destroyed the state. But morons keep voting them back in becasue they are brainwashed.

There were no tax cuts for the rixh. The rich pay all the taxes and support all of us. But the rich are moving away because they are tired of George Nee and his hacks in the GA and in the Governor's office picking their pockets.

The only hope is to vote out every single Democrat.

But the people of RI are too stupid to take that obvious path

Posted by: Doug Misner at May 14, 2011 9:41 PM

I once followed Harry Staley in giving testimony at the House Judiciary Committee regarding immigration related legislation.
Prior to the hearing,a three minute limit was announced.
haha,what a joke.
Each time some "social justice"supporter
testified,the egg timer they were using was not turned on.
Just befgore Harry and myself a former minister went on for 12 minutes.I guess if you turn your collar around,the rules are flushed.
Both Harry and myself got the egg timer treatment from Williamson,who though not the Chairman,was running the show.
Agree with me or not,I do have thr professional background to supply technically accurate testimony on that
I felt the entire proceeding was slanted heavily in one direcion and those giving what might be considered politically incorrect testimony by those who dare to disagree with Steven Brown,Duane Clinker,Roberto Gonzales,or Juan Garcia,ad nauseum were treated like interlopers.
bella-have you ever bothered to wait 4 hours in an overcrowded,unventilated room to speak for less time than it takes to boil an egg?

Posted by: joe bernstein at May 15, 2011 10:06 AM
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