Much of the “heavy lifting” we do in the Legislature occurs in the committee process. We can go into more depth on the topics and witnesses can provide valuable testimony. We have 38 different committees, each with its own scope. As an example, all State revenue bills, adjustments to the tax code, appraisal bills and those affecting the taxing ability of other jurisdictions are the purview of the Ways and Means committee on which I serve.
Once a bill is drafted in the correct format and filed with The House Clerk, it is referred (sent) to one committee. The committee Chairman than determines if that bill merits a hearing. Significant bills and controversial bills have to be pushed by the author through this step since a bill without a hearing is dead.
The hearings are open to the public and available both live and in taped versions on our House website (www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/). We start first with testimony (laying out a bill) by the author. He or she is probably not part of the committee so they have to sit and wait for their bill to be heard. This wait might be while another committee on which the author serves that might be meeting at the same time. Members waiting to lay out bills are constantly getting notes from staffers as and stepping out to make calls. They don’t want to miss a key vote or hearing in another committee while waiting. A hearing might have ten bills heard at a single meeting. And even if an junior member like me gets there early to lay out a bill, a senior member arriving later gets to go the front of the line. Seniority matters in the legislature.
Following the author’s statements is a series of witnesses he or she has invited to speak in support of the bill and provide some “expert testimony.” And then the wild cards play out as the general public and the opponents of the bill offer their testimony. As an author, I might know who is coming to oppose my bill or have a complete surprise. In either case, I have to deal with what they say.
A hearing is similar to trial in some respects. All witnesses are under oath and we even have subpoena powers (rarely used) to compel people to attend the hearing. Each committee can ask each witness whatever questions they like (cross examining) and this is often the most interesting part of the bill consideration.
Committees meet until all the bills posted have been considered. We only schedule starting times since it is unknown how long a witness many speak, how many might want to speak , or how many questions the committee members might ask. As a result, hearings often go on for hours, are recessed while we go to conduct business on the House floor, and then reconvene when our floor work is completed. We want to be sure that each person who wants to testify is afforded that opportunity and that we do not force folks to stay overnight in Austin. However, some committee hearing go past midnight to accomplish this goal. When this occurs, authors and witnesses who provide brevity are often the most successful.
A committee vote is the next step after the bill has its hearing. This usually occurs at the next committee meeting so members have some time to digest the information from the hearing and the author has time to address concerns. This is a busy time for the author as he or she touches base with committee members to secure their support. If a bill does not have support from the committee, it might not be set for a vote at all. This too is a decision by the Chairman. Finally, when a bill passes out from a committee, it is sent to Calendars Committee who sets it for floor debate and a vote.
And that brings us to the next chapter :”What Happens on the House floor.” Stay tuned.