Report From Concord – March 15, 2020

By Ken Wells

The first two weeks of March provided ample reminders that while our state government is charged with important duties and responsibilities to the public, the “politicking” involved in getting the job done can be petty, cutthroat, and infuriating.

During the current session, the House heard 951 House bills. Each bill gets an introduction and public hearing before one of the 24 House committees, in which any member of the public, agency employee, or paid lobbyist can express their views in public testimony. For about three weeks in February I filled in as the Science, Technology, and Energy Committee’s clerk, while the regular clerk took a three week trip to Central America on a cruise ship. (Alarming! What we know now about COVID-19 was not known then; it was even being proclaimed a “hoax” by some.) Back in school I learned to take excellent, nearly verbatim handwritten notes, but I’m a terrible typist. Each hearing day we heard about five bills. The notes for one particularly long bill ran 26 pages long. It took me a long time to type up and submit every bill to our committee assistant for the record, but it’s important to provide an accurate written record of the testimony on each bill. If the bill should be challenged, even years later in the courts, the judges will want to look back at these notes for more details to clarify the “legislative intent” of the bill.

A week or so after the hearing there is a second, deliberative committee “work session” on every bill. This is a slightly less formal exchange between members of the committee expressing their positions on the bill. Sometimes a committee member will suggest an amendment, which then needs to be polished by one of the state’s lawyers into proper “official” legal language. The discussions are not truly conversations; every comment needs to be directed to the Chairman, not to another member, just like we do at Town Meeting. Nevertheless, the exchanges can be pretty heated and ideological differences flare. For example, “should we update the radiation monitoring in the seacoast area, to try to get data to identify the causes of three clusters of multiple, rare childhood leukemia cases?” Or, should we “trust the professionalism of the nuclear power plant and not unnecessarily increase the plant’s costs, which they will simply pass onto ratepayers”? Such arguments can go on for more than an hour, without compromise. The power plant’s spokesperson was present, but since this is no longer a hearing but a work session, he is not to speak unless he is asked a question by the chairman.

The third meeting for a bill is the committee’s “executive session” on that bill. There may be a final polished amendment presented and explained to the committee. Eventually a motion will be made by a member on whether to pass, amend, kill the bill, or send it to further study. (The member who makes the winning motion is also volunteering for the chore of writing the committee’s Majority Report. Someone on the other side of the vote has the option of writing a Minority Report.) At the end, the committee members vote on the bill one-by-one in a roll call by the clerk (my job), who records each vote, tallies the outcome, and adds it to the official record. There can be several votes on a difficult bill – if the initial motion fails, another member might make a different motion, such as “interim study”, which essentially sends the bill into dignified obscurity. Some of the bills, due to their complexity or expense, are then sent to a second committee (such as Finance) for a second round of this whole process.

It took all of January and February to get all 951 bills through committee, and then the bills will be voted by the full House in the very impressive Representatives Hall. I wrote five bills this session (and co-wrote a sixth) and they met a variety of fates. The Commerce committee unanimously recommended killing my HB1184, which would have given more guidance to entrepreneurs navigating the various state permitting processes, because they judged that adequate guidance already exists. (Ouch.) Because there was no dissent among the committee, they placed it on the so-called “consent calendar” as ITL.  (“Inexpedient to Legislate”) For bills on Consent, the full House makes a single vote to accept the committees’ recommendations without debate. Another one of my bills, HB1185, proposes a industry-supported youth apprenticeship program, modeled on the system used so successfully in Germany. That bill has strong bipartisan support and also went on Consent, because it was unanimously passed 17- 0 by the committee. (Yay!) My other bills have had more complicated histories that I won’t explain now, but they are all still alive and will be heard by the Senate next. The sixth bill is “on the table” which is like being on the bench on a sports team; it could theoretically be brought back into the game by majority vote.

Then in February the full House began to take up the bills that were out of committee. It took several weeks to churn through them all. The bills on Consent are passed dozens at a time in a voice vote, which takes only about 30 seconds. The more contentious bills are debated, with the Minority view presented first, followed by a speech by the Majority view. Since I wrote a number of my committee’s Majority Reports last year, I have had the opportunity to deliver my short speeches “at the well”, as the pulpit-like podium is known. Now that the novelty has worn off, I’ve become a lot more confident and discovered that it’s not too different from speaking to one of my classes when I was a teacher. (Except my students were more attentive and better behaved!)

Then, the political shenanigans started: About this time last year, the Speaker of the House announced that all State House legislators and staff would be required to attend a training session on sexual harassment in the workplace. Fine idea. In my former job as a teacher, all school employees were required to do similar training, to protect both themselves, their co-workers and the reputation of the institution. I don’t recall that anyone in school objected very much to that, expecting they would certainly lose their jobs if they did not comply. Representatives had a whole year to complete the training and those that didn’t go to the first two well-attended one-hour lectures were reminded in increasingly demanding ways to attend. (If you have any experience with bill collectors, you have a good idea of the escalation I’m describing.) In spite of that, nine members refused to attend the sexual harassment training sessions for a whole year.

So, the Speaker issued reprimands to each of these people, to be voted on by the full House after they had a chance to explain themselves. One had a plausible excuse the House accepted (he had certified completion of such a training at his other job). Another accepted responsibility without complaint. But the others were loudly and insultingly defiant. The House voted to reprimand them.

The following full House session was just two days before the deadline: any bills not passed by the end of the March 12 session would be dead. Many of those bills contain essential legislation, vital to somebody or everybody in the state. Those reprimanded, aided by their allies, began to employ delaying tactics, much like filibustering in the United States Congress. We started at 9 AM on both days, but after a day and a half of session, at noon of March 12 only 35 bills had been voted on, including the bills on the Consent Calendar, and 151 remained.

Bills come up alphabetically according to the name of the committee recommending them, so Science, Tech & Energy bills are third from the end, just in front of Transportation and Ways & Means. (Ways & Means is your Rep. David Karrick’s committee, which has the important job of finding revenue for all state functions.). 

Word filtered through back channels that if the House voted to lift the reprimands, the delaying tactics would stop.

Many representatives were furious at this attempt at what felt like blackmail. Most resolved they would stand fast and get the People’s work, the work of the House, finished no matter what. Some feared that if too many reps got tired and left, or if the reprimanded faction walked out, the quorum would be lost and all legislative action would have to simply stop. The quorum is the minimum number in attendance to legally conduct business, or 268 members. As we took our seats, some were surprised when the Speaker announced that in order to maintain a quorum, he was locking us in! What? I suddenly recalled that more than a year ago, after I was sworn in I received an official summons in the mail, requiring my presence in the House under pain of…I forget what, because it seemed so unlikely. Then we heard that the State Police were in the building. Wow, this was no fooling around!

We pushed on, and the delays continued. Six o’clock went by, only a few bills were finished, and  the delays continued. Nine-thirty, and I broke out my supply of chocolate covered espresso beans and passed them around to my sleepy neighbors. It was looking grim.

At midnight we all took a short break to snack on apples, power bars, and water provided to everyone by the staffers. We observed that COVID-19 cases are increasing every day, so suspending the House deadline and reconvening to finish the work at a later date would be increasingly dangerous. Meanwhile, 400 people or so, many over 80 years old, were staying up all night to listen to arguments in a crowded room. Was there any way this could get worse?  The mood began to shift from rigid opposition to the camaraderie of facing hardship together. A bit weird, but cool.

Back in our seats, someone made that proposal that we suspend the rules and reconvene at a later date to finish our work. That motion was soundly defeated – just push on!  Around 2 AM, somebody on the other side proposed we limit debate to three minutes on each side, and it passed by a loud voice vote.

Weeks before, at the executive sessions, others on my committee had volunteered to write lengthy floor speeches for all our bill’s debates before the full House. (I had been Clerk for three weeks, so I was kind of tired of writing stuff and didn’t ask for one of those!) Instead, I volunteered to offer several of the short and stuffily formal “parliamentary inquiries” or “P.I.’s”, which contain a short outline of a bill’s main points, presented as a question: “Mr Speaker, if I know that this bill …[does this, and that and the other good thing]…then would I not push the green button to accept the committee’s recommendation to pass this bill?”

With the clock running out and twelve bills in our committee, my committee chairman asked me if I could give the P.I.’s in place of the floor speeches.  I scribbled and edited my notes on about six bills, to be as succinct as possible. For each of several bills, I made the pitch and the bills passed, one after another. The last one was an especially contested bill (about the radiation detectors I mentioned above) and whaddayaknow, the power plant’s spokesperson is sitting up in the gallery, at three in the morning! I got fired up, gave the pitch in a coach’s “down by six at half-time” pep-talk style. (I had a good deal of practice at that – it’s a situation my football team found itself in many times when I was a coach, but we always finished the season with more wins than losses.) When I was done speaking, the House applauded (an unusual breach of decorum). Perhaps because they liked what I said, or was it because we were that much closer to being done? The vote was counted, and the bill passed 160-128.

The last Ways & Means bill passed a bit later, and the House adjourned around four in the morning. A Republican colleague with whom I have worked closely on the bipartisan apprenticeship bill found me on the way out and wanted to chat. He was really excited about having been in an absolutely epic session of the New Hampshire House, the likes of which nobody could remember! It was a nice feeling of camaraderie and resolution. The People’s work was finished, at least for the time being.

The next day, my colleague Kermit Williams shared his thoughts:

“I was reminded last night of Shakespeare’s play Henry V, where Henry tells his troops on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, in part;

“And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Last night was our Saint Crispin’s day, and it will be remembered by all of us forever. And future reps who were a-bed in New Hampshire will wish they had been there, because last night will be legendary!”