When a bill or resolution is first introduced in the House of Representatives or the Senate, it is sent to a committee that deals with its particular issue. At committee meetings, elected members delegated by the House or Senate consider and make recommendations considering dispositions of bills, resolutions, and other matters referred to them. Committees are appointed by the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader and are organized according to subject matter.
There are permanent House committees and permanent Senate committees. These "standing" committees contain from five to thirty members and are appointed for two-year periods. The Appropriations Committees are subdivided in subcommittees where bills with monetary implications are assigned for discussion, analysis and revision before being presented to the full committee for action. When a bill is referred to a standing committee, the members of that committee have a choice in the actions they may take on any bill: report a bill with a favorable recommendation, or without recommendation; report a bill with amendments, with or without recommendation; report a substitute bill in place of the original bill; report a bill and recommend that it be referred to another committee; or take no action on a bill (committees are not required to "report out" a bill).
Although one of the chief functions of a committee is to "screen out" undesirable bills, arbitrary refusal of a committee to report out a bill can be remedied by a motion to "discharge the committee from further consideration of the bill." If the motion is approved by a majority of members, the bill is placed on the order of Second Reading in the House or General Orders in the Senate.
As a rule, all standing committee meetings are open to the public. Exceptions are extremely rare. Most committee business is conducted during the meeting and most committee action requires the approval of a majority of those appointed and serving on the committee. If there are a sufficient number of affirmative votes, the bill is reported out.
There are several other types of committees set up by the legislature to achieve certain goals. Special committees may be created by a House or Senate Resolution and appointed by the Speaker and/or Senate Majority Leader. These committees are generally appointed to serve during a specified time period. The number of members of these committees will vary according to the specifications of the Resolution. For the most part, these committees are used to study and investigate topics of special interest, such as railroads, aging, urban mass transportation, nursing home issues, etc.
Another type of committee is the joint committee. Several of these are established by statute. These committees, like standing committees, are appointed for two-year periods, but membership consists of both Representatives and Senators.
Members are usually given at least one day's notice of all committee meetings.
The following guidelines are suggested to assist citizens in making their testimony influential and effective:
- Write to committee members and to your own Representative, simply expressing support or opposition to the legislation.
- If you decide to testify, notify the committee as soon as possible of your desire and, as a courtesy, let your legislators know that you've asked for time to present testimony.
- If you represent a group of individuals or an organization, choose only one person to present the group's viewpoint and bring others along as supporters.
- Prepare testimony and/or suggested amendments in advance. Read the bill carefully and any available analyses. If necessary, do research and make sure that all of your facts, background materials and figures are accurate. Consult with others to determine the scope of the issue and clarify what you, or the group, want to cover in your testimony.
- Prepare a clear and concise written statement which has been thoroughly proofread for errors. Review it with others who share the same interest.
- When you testify, identify who you are. If you represent a group, give the name of the group. In your opening remarks, state whether you are testifying in support of or in opposition to the proposal or bill. Relate your group's or your own experience or views directly related to the issue.
- Keep your testimony short and to the point. It is best to offer highlights at the hearing and request permission to place your complete position and supporting materials in the record. Anything you present in writing will be placed in the committee members' files and will be available to them at any future meetings. If possible, have copies of testimony available for committee members and staff.
- Avoid emotional speeches and propaganda. Your role is an important one; don't abuse it. Getting emotional and pitching propaganda is the surest way to invite a hostile reaction and alienate the very committee members you are trying to persuade.
- If you are asked a question, keep a cool head. Don't be afraid to stop and think for a minute to answer the question properly. If you don't have the answer, never guess. Instead, request permission to file a detailed response at a later date.
Remember, without the support of the committee involved, the bill or proposal that you are interested in may never make it to the floor to be voted on. Even if you decide not to testify, your attendance at a hearing and personal correspondence with committee members and your own legislators are very important in influencing the decision-making process.
If a bill of interest to you has been introduced, find out from the Clerk of the House, the Secretary of the Senate or an interested organization which committee the bill was referred to. You may then write a brief letter to the Committee Clerk for that committee asking to be notified when the bill is put on the committee agenda for discussion or is scheduled for a public hearing. You may also write to the Committee Chair requesting that the bill be put on the agenda or scheduled for a hearing. Sometimes only the volume of letters on a particular bill will assure that it receives a committee hearing, since not all bills are "automatically" considered. Many die without ever having been considered by a committee. If you find out about a bill after it has passed in the House or Senate, you may still have the opportunity to be heard before the committee in the other Chamber to which the bill has been referred.
It is important to note that attention given to bills in regular committee meetings may not be as extensive as in a public hearing because of time limitations. A committee may be regularly scheduled to meet for an hour, and may need to consider three or four bills during that timeframe. A public hearing on the other hand, may hear testimony on a single issue for more than three hours. However, only major pieces of legislation or bills in which there is widespread interest will normally be scheduled for public hearings.
When a bill is scheduled on the committee's agenda for consideration, and if you have an active interest in the legislation and feel there are contributions you can make to the committee's process, you may decide to testify at either a meeting or a hearing. The purpose of testimony given should be informational so that committee members can vote on the bill with as full an understanding as possible of all sides of the issue it addresses, and the consequences of its passage. In a meeting, the bill's sponsor, along with experts on the issue and informed members of the public, will be heard. If the measure is controversial or if additional information is needed before a decision can be reached by the committee's members, most committees will hold the bill over to a future meeting date or even a public hearing.