Critics, Defenders Debate over Legislative Process

By Carter, Ray | THE JOURNAL RECORD, April 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Critics, Defenders Debate over Legislative Process


There are generally two views on the legislative process. To some, making law is like making sausage: The average person doesn't want to watch it up close, but is usually satisfied with the end result.
But others say the lawmaking process should be like the centerfold of a cheap men's magazine: Every graphic detail should be obvious to even casual observers.
Oklahoma's legislative process, critics say, is riddled with procedures used to obscure public scrutiny and grease the skids for proposals too controversial to become law if voted on individually and in full light of the public.
Those critics say the average small business owner or citizen in Oklahoma has little chance of tracking legislation that could impact his or her life without extraordinary effort.
"If they want to track a bill, that's fine. It's probably not that hard," said one lobbyist, who asked not to be named. "But if they really want to track a subject and know whether something's going to happen that's going to affect their industry, I don't know how they've done it. They've made the system (at the Capitol) so difficult that you've got to have me or somebody like me. And that's kind of crazy."
Defenders of Oklahoma's legislative process say it might not always be pretty, but the procedures used are designed to make the best use of lawmakers' limited time.
Rep. Russ Roach, D- Tulsa, tackles procedural issues every year as chair of the House Rules Committee. In recent years, he noted that the House has adopted several reforms meant to increase scrutiny without making it impossible for bills to become law.
That's a balance that must be carefully maintained, he said.
"We can put a lot of other restrictions on people that will keep the process from working, and that's not desirable," Roach said.
But critics say the process still has plenty of room for improvement.
Conference committees
One of the most controversial aspects of the legislative process in Oklahoma is the use of conference committees. While standing committees of the House and Senate (such as the House Insurance Committee) meet publicly at set times and dates, that's not true of conference committees.
In fact, it's rare to ever see an actual meeting of conference committee members. That's because a conference committee - created to hammer out the differences between the House and Senate version of a bill - involve very little participation from members and even less from the public.
The statutory language developed in conference is usually generated by the bill's author or a lobbyist. Conference committee members then "vote" on the bill by individually signing it if they support the new language.
The process often forces a face-off between lobbyists, with one side seeking signatures from lawmakers, and the other side seeking promises not to sign a bill. It's akin to "herding cats," said one lobbyist interviewed for this article.
To critics, conference committees are the legislative version of Enron's off-balance-sheet partnerships - a procedure used to hide information that should be public knowledge. Although the changes made to a bill in conference can be minor, the whole bill can also be gutted and rewritten - and the public won't see the new language until the bill emerges from conference, often during the final hectic weeks of session.
Although most states use conference committees, Oklahoma stands apart, based on data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures. According to 1999 figures compiled by NCSL, Oklahoma ranked second in the nation in the creation of conference committees, trailing only Texas.
In 1999, Texas had between 166 and 172 conference committees while Oklahoma created 154 to 163 conference committees. Louisiana was third with 146 conference committees and Arizona was next with 103.
At the other end of the spectrum, Washington's Legislature created no conference committees in 1999 and Wisconsin created only one conference committee. …

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