Legislature 104 – Inside committees and floor debates Resources: Legislative website: www.leg.wa.gov TVW (C-Span for Washington State): www.tvw.org Legislative hotline: 1-800-562-6000 Transcript We last talked about the overall process of how a bill becomes a law. Today, we’re going take you inside a committee hearing, then we’ll talk about what happens during floor debates. For most of session, committees are where the action is. All through the first two cutoff dates – policy committee cutoff and fiscal committee cutoff – the legislature spends its time in committees, only spending most of their time on the floor in the couple of weeks between fiscal committee cutoff and floor cutoff. Committees have three kinds of meetings: Public Hearings, where they get briefed on bills and hear public testimony; Executive Sessions, where they amend and vote on the bills; and Work Sessions, where they aren’t doing anything with particular bills, but instead might have topic area experts present information about issues relating to their committee. A single two-hour legislative committee meeting could have anywhere from one to all three of these kinds of activities. [audio clip: “The committee will come to order...”] A legislative committee has anywhere from 5 members to a couple dozen for the big fiscal committees such as Appropriations or Ways and Means. The chair of each committee is a member of the majority party, as are a majority of the members on the committee. The committee chair runs the meeting. They’ll gavel the meeting to order and might call on people to testify. They are assisted by a Vice-Chair, a member of their party, who might also call on people to testify during public hearings, and who typically makes the motions on bills that are brought up for executive session. Each committee also has a Ranking Member, a member of the minority party who is responsible for leading their party’s members on the committee. The Ranking Member is assisted by an Assistant Ranking Member, also of the minority party. The legislators sit up on the dais, in rows or in a big horseshoe. Also attached to each committee, sitting off to the side, is a handful of non-partisan analysts, a committee assistant and clerk, plus a partisan staff member from each caucus. In the middle of the room, facing the legislators, is a table where people sit when they testify. Then in chairs towards the back of the room, there’s the audience, made up of members of the public, lobbyists, and reporters. Public Hearing. Public hearing on a bill starts with a briefing from the non-partisan committee staff. The staff here will describe what the bill does. Non-partisan staff are scrupulously careful about describing the bill in the most accurate and fact-based terms, without having an opinion about the benefits or drawbacks of the bill. After the staff briefing, the prime sponsor will speak to their bill. Many times, the prime sponsor is a member of the committee. Otherwise, the sponsor will take a break from their committee or other work to come and speak to the reason they introduced the bill. Then it’s time for the public to speak. Anyone can sign up to speak to a bill, in favor or in opposition. Sometimes no one wants to speak to the bill, sometimes, on a controversial bill, there may be dozens signed up. If the committee has a full schedule with a lot of bills and a lot of people wishing to testify, the committee chair may limit folks who testify to just a few minutes to speak. Executive Session After a public hearing, a bill can be scheduled for executive session – that’s when a bill can be amended and voted out of committee. In an executive session, bills can be amended before they are voted out. Amendments can do any number of things to change the bill, but they still must fall under the scope of the title of the bill. That is, the title of the bill and the text of the bill must basically match. An amendment that falls outside the scope of the bill can be ruled out of order. Legislators can vote “Do Pass” on a bill to send it out of committee, “Do Not Pass” if they don’t want the bill to pass, or they can vote “Without recommendation.” If a bill is scheduled for executive session, it means the bill is going to pass. Because the chairperson controls the schedule Just like in the policy committees, fiscal committees will hold public hearings, and members of the public can testify. Here, though, testimony is just about always time limited, because of the number of bills the committee has to deal with in such a short time. Testimony in Approps is supposed to be limited to the fiscal impact of the bill. ***
Floor Action OK, our bill has made it through committees by cutoff, now we’ve got to get it off the floor. If Committee Chairs are in charge of what bills get brought up in committee and when, it’s caucus leadership who is in charge of what bills make it to the floor. Have we talked about caucus leadership yet? I don’t think so. Let’s cover them quickly. Each caucus has a handful of members who are elected as their leadership. There are a few different leadership roles. The Majority or Minority Leader is the head of their respective caucus, setting the legislative agenda, and speaking on behalf of the caucus. In the House, the majority caucus also elects the Speaker of the House, who outranks the majority leader and the highest-ranking member of the House. Theoretically, the Speaker presides over the House, but usually that job is left to the “Speaker Pro Tempore”, whose job it is to preside when the Speaker isn’t there. There’s a majority and minority Whip, whose job it is to count votes for their caucus and make sure that bills have enough support to pass, and persuade caucus members who are on the fence. Each caucus also has a Caucus Chair, who leads the caucus meetings, where the legislators discuss bills within their own caucus. Finally, each caucus elects a Floor Leader, who runs the floor, meaning they are responsible for making the motions to bring bills up for debate or passage. They’re also responsible for procedural maneuvering and strategy when necessary. Each of these positions also have deputies. That’s caucus leadership, and it’s caucus leadership (specifically majority caucus leadership) who is in control of what bills make it to the floor for debate.
When legislators are on the floor, members of the public can’t go up and talk to them – not just anyone can go into the House and Senate chambers. So while the legislators are on the floor, the doors to the chambers are swamped with lobbyists and members of the public writing notes into legislators, asking them to come out and talk about bills. You write a note to the legislator you want to talk to, hand it to security, then they drop it on the legislator’s desk, and you just wait outside the door, hoping they will come out and talk to you. It’s... not most dignified process. You can also watch from the gallery, high above the floor. From there you can see legislators at their desks, with Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other. The desks are facing the Rostrum, a tiered set of desks full of House or Senate staff, charged with keeping track of all the various bills that are being considered, reading bills outloud, calling the role, etc. At the center of the highest tier is the presiding officer. Usually it’s the Speaker Pro Tempore or Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore in the House, and the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate. The Lieutenant Governor is not a member of the Senate, and does not get a vote on bills unless there’s a tie. When a bill is up for debate on the floor, the prime sponsor will usually speak first, followed by a member of the opposite party. If there are amendments to the bill, they will debate the amendments first, then debate the underlying bill. Some debates go on for a long time, some are quick. Plenty of bills pass unanimously, or nearly unanimously. Others pass with the narrowest of majorities. When it’s time to vote, the House votes by machine, pressing a button on their desk. [audio] The Senate votes by roll call, as a staff person calls each senator’s name and they announce how they vote. [audo] You can watch all of this – floor action and committee hearings – on TVW. Think of TVW as C-Span for Washington. It’s a way that you can follow all the action happening at the legislature. We’ll be talking more about the other online tools you can use to follow legislative action in our next episode, a video about using the legislative website.