Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Roundhouse from the Gallery

I wrote this piece as a Guest Blog for Democracy for New Mexico - you can view the original Here

Having had the luxury of spending a lot of time at the Roundhouse this regular session, I decided to share some of my observations. This is not about policy issues; it has been quite a while since I spent so much time there. Some things have changed, but much remains the same.

Texting, tweeting, and emailing are now the norm in committees, walking around, and on the floor.

The lobbyist’s call script has not changed, in the early days of the session, “... just returning your call, things are moving along, I have a meeting scheduled with X, will give you a call later....”

As the session progresses the message changes somewhat, either to premature victory for a bill that made it out of its first committee or hopeful disappointment “... we still have a chance....”

This being a short session dedicated to fiscal matters and the governor’s call, it is amazing how many bills have been introduced with no chance of ever coming to the floor for a vote and, in fact, many never make it on the schedule for their first committee hearing.

The fate of bills is often decided in committees. While this is the only time where the general public (more often paid lobbyists or speakers brought in by lobbyists) can speak for or against a bill, it is obvious that the outcome was often decided beforehand; in those cases voting is just a formality to table or move the bill on.

Tracking a bill can be interesting. The fact that it is on a calendar does not mean that it will actually be heard that day and time. Legislative time does not conform to what one is used to; overheard in a committee room from a staffer, “... oh, we’ve never convened on time, the schedule just gives everyone something they can feel good about....”

I believe that most legislators act in accord with their individual beliefs and what they think is best for their constituency. They do work hard, spending time away from home and family. Whom they consider their constituency and what they produce would be another post.

Having a part-time citizen legislature is interesting in itself; without full-time staff the legislators tend to rely on volunteers in their offices, and on various “experts” to justify/push their bills. Many of the bills are written by lobbyists, one or multiple legislators just put their name on it, and then have expert witnesses on hand when presenting in committee or on the floor.

Some legislators have a good grasp or even expertise in certain fields due to their full time jobs or because they have made it their business to become educated on the issue(s); others truly represent the average citizen with little knowledge of existing statutes or understanding of the impact that their proposed legislation would have. This understanding or lack thereof becomes apparent in floor debates, and at times leads to some unintended levity. This may be one of the reasons why there is so much opposition to webcasting and archiving all floor and committee work.

Floor debates can be fascinating and frustrating as well. One may wonder why 20 senators stand up in opposition or support of a bill unless you know that they are playing to an audience. The audience may be obvious and acknowledged openly after the vote, as is the case with many memorials; or not as obvious as when, after the speech, the legislator looks into the gallery and receives a nod from a lobbyist or when a large contingent of people that were sitting together leaves the gallery after the vote.

Personally, what I find most frustrating are the “gotcha” questions. Some lawmakers seem to specialize in them. They do not serve a true discovery process, but rather to either make a show of their own knowledge or create plausible deniability for their vote. Poorly prepared sponsors, circular arguments, and long-winded speeches to nowhere are next on my list of peeves.

Spending some time at the Roundhouse observing its workings, except for the backroom deals, can be fascinating or bore you out of your skull depending on your level of interest in sausage making.

I’ll close with a snippet overheard in the House Judiciary Committee:

“... based on New Mexico’s history there is no legislative intent....”

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