Using the Gavel

I’ve had a couple of questions about the hearing we held this weekend on the Senate bill to temporarily suspend Initiative 960. I’ll write about the bill elsewhere but I wanted to talk briefly about how difficult it is to manage a large hearing on a contentious issue. This particular hearing was held at 9:00 on a Saturday morning and was the largest hearing in Olympia this year, or in my memory. We held it in the largest hearing room we have and had 4 overflow rooms, all of which we used.

I prepared extensively to try to avoid a disaster. We managed the room layout so that we had seats for almost everyone. We had sign up sheets distributed around in the hallway so there was not a crush of people trying to sign up. We had discreet security, which fortunately we did not have to call on. I spent more time preparing for this hearing than I have any other hearing I’ve done in 8 years in the Legislature. Most people thought it went very well.

I announced a set of rules at the beginning of the hearing that almost everyone chose to follow.  The rules we follow in committee are the same as the rules of decorum we follow on the House floor.

 Here’s what I said at the beginning of the hearing:

 I am fully committed to letting as many of you speak as possible. 

 And to that end, let me lay out the ground rules for today’s meeting so we’re all clear.

 At no time will I allow anyone to impugn the motives of any person or any piece of legislation being discussed. We all care deeply about our state and the families and businesses within its borders. We might disagree about how to manage this budget situation, but I will insist that today’s hearing remain focused on the merits of the bills in front of us.

 At no time will I allow anyone to use threatening language or disruptive behavior. I will not indulge members of the audience in cat-calling, name-calling, whistling, cheering, booing or any other disruption to the hearing.

 I will keep a strict time limit of two minutes for every speaker. Two minutes is about 200 words. Two minutes is 120 seconds. Every speaker will get two minutes and no more.

The ranking Republican member Rep. Ed Orcutt made similar remarks, which I thought were very gracious and made the same points.

 I used the gavel to interrupt one speaker because I felt he was impugning members of the legislature. Other than a brief 20 second interruption we heard his entire commentary, which was fine. He got 2:47 to make up for the time I used up. Immediately after I asked the one person to confine his remarks to the bill the crowd clapped. I gaveled them down too. The media covered this because that’s their job.

 I’ve had this particular person in front of my committee several times and he always does this. If you don’t force him to confine his remarks to the bill he becomes more and more outrageous until you do. It’s hard to figure out exactly how to play it – my goal was to be as fair as possible, give everyone a chance to share their views on the bill, hear as many people as possible (I had 40 pages of people who wanted to testify) and have a hearing that was a legislative event and not theater. If you don’t use the gavel the hearing can get out of control. If you do, you can be perceived as a bully. I have used the gavel 3 times in 8 years. Twice with this one individual and once with another legislator who was badgering a witness.

I alternated between pro and con panels until I ran out of con. Everyone got exactly the same amount of time. I had about 4 times as many people who wanted to speak for the bill as against, but I balanced the time 50-50. It’s difficult to keep events like this dignified. I feel I succeeded.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.

One thought on “Using the Gavel”

  1. Well done. Would that all hearings were so focused on relevant commentary in a fair and even-handed way. Also commendable: letting the public talk rather than the legislators speechifying.

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