Where Are the Real People?
Two Senate committees, Judiciary and Health & Welfare, held a joint hearing Thursday morning about H.225, the “bupe bill.” It would legalize small quantities of buprenorphine, an opioid that’s often used as a substitute for, or a path away from, more dangerous street opiates. It passed the House by a lopsided 126-to-19 margin.
The fact that the hearing happened at all was a positive development. Last we heard, the bill was stuck in Senate purgatory with leadership wondering if they had time to properly consider it. The shape and substance of the hearing seems to indicate that the Senate will act on the bill. (The two-part hearing can be viewed here and here on YouTube.)
For one thing, the two committees met jointly. That’s not something they do very often. For another, they heard from a broad spectrum of witnesses — and Judiciary has set aside time Friday morning for committee discussion. By legislative committee standards, this is warp speed. (Also, Judiciary seems to be offended, but effectively chastened, by unfavorable media coverage of its obstreperousness, including multiple rants in this space. Suddenly the committee is expediting a number of bills that passed the House by huge margins.)
The witness list leaned heavily toward representatives of the justice system. Otherwise there was one UVM doctor, two Scott administration officials, two people who deal professionally with substance use disorder treatment; and former candidate for governor and lieutenant governor Brenda Siegel, the only witness on the docket without some sort of official imprimatur.
To me, there were two striking things about this hearing. First, the witness list was short on people with actual experience with substance use disorder and recovery. Second, there was a nearly complete lack of “real people,” i.e. non-credentialed members of the public.
This is standard operating procedure for legislative hearings. They tend to feature a relative handful of lobbyists, advocates, public officials and the like. And I think this is a serious problem for the lawmaking process.
The most impactful witnesses were the two with some real-world experience. Siegel, who has lost a brother and a nephew to SUD, and Jess Kirby, who successfully battled SUD and now works for the Howard Center’s needle exchange program. Their testimony was powerful and personal. They spoke to their own interactions with law enforcement and the health care system, offering a perspective you can’t get simply by studying an issue or occupying an office. And you almost never see their like in any legislative hearing.
The committee system is so unfriendly to the general public that it takes a real, concerted effort for anyone other than The Usual Suspects to take part. That, plus a very flexible schedule and an extremely forgiving employer.
For lobbyists, advocates and government officials, appearing before legislative committees is part of the job. They keep close track of hearings and bills within their purview. (For that matter, lobbyists get paid just to keep on the lookout. Sometimes tha’s all they have to do, but their mere presence is worth paying for.)
For the average person, it’s almost an impossible task. At best, you have a few days’ warning of when a given issue will come up. At worst, you get little to no notice at all because committee schedules are constantly changing. If your job is to keep track, you know what’s coming up and you can accommodate last-minute changes. Otherwise, you’re pretty much screwed.
It’s a bit less difficult this year because it’s a Zoom session. People can testify without having to go to Montpelier (or appear by phone, which is always awkward). But presumably we’ll be back to normal next year.
Testimony does make a difference. Appearing live before a panel of lawmakers can be much more effective than a letter or phone call. The information available to lawmakers would be fuller if it included people who actually live with an issue or interact with a government program.
I’ve talked with lawmakers about this, and they tend to agree. In fact, some lament the fact that they so often hear from the same old crowd. But so far, no one has devised a way to make the process accessible to “real people.”
Frankly, I don’t know if they’ve really tried. It’s not something that’s easily done. But the result would be a more open process and better informed lawmakers.