I am frequently asked for more detail regarding just what goes on in Austin during the legislative session. As I tell our students, “It is a messy process, like watching sausage being made.”
First of all, there is no routine. The meeting postings are just there as placeholders. Meetings get moved around a lot! There are plenty of deadlines and tons of activity. Nothing follows a really set schedule. Meetings can occur on a few minutes’ notice as long as committee members are informed during the time they are in session. Designated start times for most meetings are fairly prompt, while some linger on for a while and a few get cancelled (like today’s 7 a.m.).
For the House Appropriations Committee, meetings (a.k.a. hearings) have been starting at 7 a.m. each day with subcommittee hearings on each of the major budget sections. These meetings last about three hours. A “bell” rings at 10 minutes to 10 and legislative members have 10 minutes to find their way from the hearing rooms and declare them self present for the House’s general session.
What goes on next is a laborious litany of formalities, introduction of special visiting groups, local and consent calendars, recognitions, announcements, and occasionally at this stage legislative action on bills. So far this session, the only action on bills has been on the Governor’s emergency list. Other bills are still working their way from committees to the Calendar Committee and to the floor.
The House usually finishes its business by noon and there is a hurried dash to committee rooms to resume hearings regarding budget or other issues. Members usually grab a quick bite to eat in their office or in the capitol cafeteria. Personally, I have not observed any long lunch breaks at glamorous restaurants. Members are too busy to dine out during the daytime.
Committee meetings go on … well, FOREVER! Everyone on the committee gets to talk, and invited guests are called to testify on pre-determined subjects. The process is devoted to educating committee members on the topics / issues at hand so they can make informed decisions when they vote. The public is permitted to offer input also. Time is allotted for people to sign up to talk in front of the committee. Each person is limited to three minutes of testimony either for or against a particular bill.
Hearings typically wind down around 8-10 p.m., but some last into the wee hours of the morning. There is much to be done and all too little time in which to do it. In health care, there is a limited work week for medical house staff because we know that output and thought processes decline after 80 hours in any given work week. I often wonder if a similar rule should be in place for the Legislature.
A mirror to all of the activity that I just described is also found for the Senate. The Senate is engaged from early morning until late at night in meetings and hearings and negotiations.
So what does a typical day for the UTMB legislative affairs team look like?
5:30 a.m. The day begins by responding to urgent emails.
6:30 a.m. Park the car and walk up the hill to the Capitol.
6:45 a.m. Pass through security and find the committee room. You must arrive early if you want a seat. Greet friends; exchange information.
7:00 a.m. Hearing starts. And the day has begun and will be filled with. . .
· Listening and identifying topics of importance while trying to figure out what questions members may be asking your institution when called upon to testify.
· Keeping a close eye on budget numbers and who is collecting specific allocations of funds (and tracking what they are designated for)
· Observing, observing, observing!
· Scheduling meetings with members post-hearing in order to share information related to questions that have arisen during the discussions in committee.
· Preparing one page talking points that provide clear, concise information on key topics for members and staff.
· Identifying policy and regulatory changes that could be disruptive to patient care and/or business operations.
· Maintaining constant communication with our executive leadership on developments that impact our institution and/or our mission.
When the day is done you will know because the Capitol halls will empty and people will retreat to their favorite watering hole for refreshments. We don’t do that; we just go home and prepare for the next day!
Sooner than you think, the day starts again.
Most legislative sessions start slowly and the pace at first is a leisurely one. This session is anything but that. The pace is almost frantic. Information is traveling at warp speed. The search for more money to fund public education, higher education, human and health services, and other vital programs has been exhaustive.
I have personally listened to so many proposals for reductions of services that I have nightmares about it. Just how much can you cut from social service programs, from health care, from higher education, and from services for the aged and disabled? Just how much? Another $12 million here? Another $5 million there?
Keep your eye on the outcomes, especially the programs that do NOT get cut. They likely have a guardian angel! And ask yourself some questions, like “why?”, “how?” and “who?”
The halls and grounds of the Capitol have been filled with “concerned citizens.” One day the halls were lined with physically challenged people in wheel chairs who chanted in opposition to proposed reductions in services targeting the department of assistive and rehabilitative services.
I walked out of the Capitol last week and heard the spine-chilling screams of a young man who was deaf and communication-challenged as he tried to express his displeasure about proposed reductions in services to the blind and deaf. His guttural screams haunted me for the rest of the day. He was surrounded by a throng of people holding signs reading “Save our Schools” and Capitol police officers who looked paralyzed by the scene.
The people and activities at the Capitol are a reflection of Texas. All ethnicities. All types of attire. Tie-dyed Ts and saris. Some with shoes; some without. Some in pinstripe suits and obligatory red ties. Some in jeans, boots and cowboy hats. And, noise. Lots of noise. Lots of marching bands playing on the Capitol steps. Lots of children’s choirs singing in the rotunda.
Yesterday the Capitol looked like an ant hill with hundreds and hundreds of people holding placards and homemade signs urging the legislature to fund community school programs. Whole families were present. Grandmas dined on fried chicken on the steps in front of the south entry.
And there is the “liberty lady.” A middle-aged, African-American woman who wraps herself in an American flag and wears a headdress like the Statue of Liberty. She also holds a torch (without a flame). She never says a word. She just places herself in various poses around the Capitol grounds as a reminder.
And, I cannot forget the guy in the pink pig suit who stands at the front gate with a sign that says “Some LAWYERS ARE PIGS.” I have to get his story one day.
Inside, the building is teeming with the same people searching for legislative offices, bathrooms (there are far too few), elevators (there are even less of them), and a voice in the process (there is plenty of that). Messengers scurry about carrying printed materials (yes, there is email but it hasn’t yet replaced printed working documents). Formality and civility is the language. Respect is present.
This is what the Texas version of democracy looks like. Even with its occasional faults, it is probably better than that found anywhere in the world, Washington D.C. included.