House Committee Opens Its Legislative Process to Public

June 30, 2011 | By Liza Casabona | Post a Comment

Given the often rancorous debates that happen around legislation, particularly around anything that involves funding, a brush with the appropriations process leaves a lot of folks cold.

It’s hard for some groups not to feel like political footballs whenever the topic of funding priorities comes up, since every program is fighting for a piece of the same pie. You can’t blame groups for feeling that unless you’re linked with a lobbying outfit, we’re all on the outside looking in.

What if there were a different way?

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., rolled out a proposal to privatize high-speed and intercity rail earlier this month using an innovative approach to the legislative process.

As part of drafting the legislation, Mica and Shuster held a town-hall style meeting to solicit input from stakeholders. Aside from the controversial specifics of the plan outlined by the two lawmakers — which  would drastically overhaul how railroads are funded, built and run — the approach taken by the two Republican congressman also raised some interesting philosophical points about how decisions can be made on the Hill.

The meeting Mica and Shuster held on June 15 was part briefing, part hearing and part webinar. The duo fielded questions and comments from the press, industry representatives and other stakeholders in the room as well as from participants on a teleconference line who were watching the event via the web. And most important, they actively solicited input regarding the legislation before it was completely written. Mica said they based the meeting on the town halls that gained popularity during the last election cycle to solicit ideas that might be better than their own.

Proponents of the Internet have argued for years that it is a democratizing force, that it allows more people to participate in dialogues than ever before. Using the web to solicit suggestions from the general public on how to craft and improve a legislative proposal would seem to push that to a new level.

I grew up in Vermont, where town hall meetings are the norm in the political process, so part of me thinks letting folks weigh in is just common sense. It can be messy, but it raises some interesting questions about who should get a say.

The Transportation Committee’s exercise this month could all come to nothing. Our elected officials are still the people charged with crafting, writing and passing legislation, but the opportunity to weigh in would at least present some opportunities for new voices to participate in the process.

Is this opening a door to transparency or opening a can of worms? What suggestions for legislative priorities would you make if given the opportunity? What proposals would you push for?


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