An Endurance Contest in Futility
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.