There was an interesting interim study last week requested by Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, and Sen. Kay Floyd, D-OKC, minority leaders in their respective legislative bodies. Rep. Virgin made the request that asked for a “joint study with Senate Minority Leader Floyd to evaluate Legislative Transparency in our state throughout the entire legislative session and taking a closer look at transparency in the budgetary process. The study will assess and evaluate other State Legislature procedures and best practices to ensure open and accessible information is provided to all members and to the public.”
By making the request, Rep. Virgin is calling attention to the fact that many legislative decisions, large and small, are made in discussions behind closed doors. The public, and even some fellow legislators, never hear about the decisions until it’s too late to make an effective challenge.
Truth be told, that’s unlikely to change regardless of what the legislative rules say. Although legislators talk about transparency, it’s usually not in their interest to be fully transparent. If you give your opponents advance warning of what’s going to happen, you arm them with the opportunity to marshal their forces against you. It may seem cynical, but in a contest between adopting the policies those in charge think are best for the state and being open and transparent in the way they do it, open and transparent seldom wins.
With the exception of recorded committee votes, it’s hard to find a rule change in the past several years that has significantly increased transparency. There seems to always be a way around the rules. Shell bills are now introduced en masse to be amended as committee substitutes circulated at the last minute or conference committee substitutes filed in the rush at the end of session. There is now a Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB) to hear non-amendable bills introduced by leadership and run through committee at the speed of sound at the end of session. To be honest, the same thing was done before using conference committee substitutes, but JCAB has made it easier and probably more frequent. The one thing that adds a degree of transparency today is the use of computers and search engines.
An unfortunate change in recent years, as Sen. Floyd pointed out, is the frequent shutting out of the public’s participation in committee meetings on legislation during session. Committee meetings were once where much of the public work of legislating occurred. Discussion, debate, and significant amendments were offered by members on nearly every significant bill, and the public was allowed to appear and speak, pro and con.
Today, in some committees, including nearly all House committees, public comment is limited, if allowed at all, to friendly information provided by the bill’s proponents. Only if that occurs, may opposition voices be heard. Committee members miss the opportunity to hear both sides. A change that could make committees more participatory would be the adoption of rules for committees providing a means for citizen participation.