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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL275.PRB - The Decline of Committee Hearings
I was inspired to write this column by a question from a public policy student who asked about the role of committee hearings in the legislative process.
Not much, was my response.
Of course, there are occasional hearings that generate major news like those dealing with gun rights.
But many committee hearings tend to be dominated by special-interest lobbyists who utter the expected views of their clients or organizations.
That's a fundamental change from a few decades ago when bill sponsors would turn committee hearings into near theater to generate public support with testimony from real victims in need of government action.
None were as skilled at using committee hearings to build public support as was the late Sen. Harriet Woods in the early 1980s.
The St. Louis County Democrat had been a journalist and TV producer. So she knew how to line up committee witnesses with personal, compelling stories.
Her stage-craft skills helped pass the state's last major toughening of drunken driving laws and tougher standards for nursing homes.
But in recent years, it's been rare that committee hearings have been enrapturing.
If you doubt me, try to remember the last story from a committee hearing that caused you to think about a complicated public policy issue and helped you understand the impact on real people.
One reason for the change involves term limits. Legislators no longer have enough time in office to learn how to use committee hearings like Harriet Woods did to build statewide public support for an issue.
Another cause involves the virtual elimination of evening committee hearings.
Evening hearings began to be phased out under House Speaker Catherine Hannaway in response to the shenanigans that sometimes arose from late evenings of legislators drinking in the Capitol.
Her move helped civilize the process. But it had the unintended consequence of limiting the ability of the general public with daytime jobs to drive to Jefferson City and testify.
Further, daytime hearings are limited to the few hours between full chamber sessions. That's forced committee chairs to limit the time for testimony, making it a less friendly environment for private citizens with little or no experience in appearing before a formal legislative committee.
Even if a private citizen wanted to testify and could take off from work, it wouldn't be easy, particularly in the Senate.
Two Senate committee hearing rooms have been redesigned with extended space for legislators and staff, but leaving limited seating for others. Those few seats quickly are grabbed by lobbyists and agency staff, often leaving standing-room only for others.
TV coverage of Senate committee hearings that had been so critical in Harriet Woods' legislative successes have been nearly abandoned in those two Senate committee rooms because the ornate design restricts TV-camera vantage points.
Granted, there's less interest by metro-market TV to drive all the way to Jefferson City for a story.
But legislators of old got around that problem and the limited time for hearings with interim committees that had extensive hearings across the state during the months the legislature was not in session.
I sense many of today's term-limited legislators do not understand how interim committee hearings could help build public interest and understanding about issues -- as well as understanding by their colleagues.
I actually saw legislative minds change from what they heard in those extended interim hearings.
The most poignant involved efforts to restrict medical malpractice lawsuits.
One of the leading proponents of lawsuit limits said he learned from those extended hearings that frivolous lawsuits were not the only cause for rising medical malpractice awards, as he originally thought.
Another factor, he said he realized were advances in medical technology to deal with disabling ailments, but which have less chance of complete success.
Today, with shortened hearings rushed through during the few months the legislature is in session, I fear that the learning process from committee hearings has become less likely -- for both legislators and the general public.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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