New Hampshire Legislative Hearings Are Largely a Waste of Time

(UPDATED on January 8, 2017.)

Both the New Hampshire Legislature and the United States Congress hold “public hearings” on bills.

The custom and practice in New Hampshire, however, is to allow anyone who wishes to testify to testify.  This encourages the opposing sides of a bill to pack the hearing with favorable witnesses in an attempt to show a groundswell of public support of or public opposition to the bill, which generates redundant testimony.  Additionally, because there is no separation of the wheat from the chaff the committees must endure low quality, and in many instances downright unhelpful, testimony.

A public hearing in Congress, in contrast, simply means that the hearing is not conducted behind closed doors.  It is open to the public and the press.

New Hampshire legislative hearings should be reformed along the lines of Congressional hearings. Here are some suggestions:

Committees should accept written testimony from anyone up to three days before a scheduled hearing.

Hearings should be scheduled for a fixed amount of time.  The length would be decided by the committee chairman.

The majority and the minority should get to call a fixed number of witnesses based on the composition of the committee.  In other words, if the chairman decides that ten witnesses are appropriate and if there are six Republicans and four Democrats on the committee, the Republicans would get to call six witnesses and the Democrats would get to call four witnesses.

Each member of the  committee should be allowed to question a witness for the same amount of time.  Thus, the time of the hearing would be divided proportionally between the majority and minority.

The hearings should be open to the public and the press.

These reforms would turn New Hampshire legislative hearings from day-long (and in some cases multi-day-long) marathons into efficient and efficacious information-gathering tools.

UPDATE: January 8, 2017.  Since posting this I learned that Representative J.R. Hoell is sponsoring a bill that would prevent public employees from testifying at legislative hearings on “company time” with certain exceptions.  While not within the scope of this post, it is a reform that should be passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor.

98-F:2 Public Employee Testimony.

I. No public employee, as defined in RSA 273-A:1, IX, may testify before a hearing of a general court committee during working hours unless:

(a) Specifically requested by the chairperson of the committee and a copy of such request is provided in writing to the clerk of the committee.

(b) Explicitly authorized by his or her employer to represent such employer with respect to the matter on which testimony is being received and such documentation is provided in writing to the clerk of the committee.

(c) The public employee has chosen to use personal or vacation time to testify on a matter before the legislature and has provided written evidence to the clerk of the committee of the time being used as personal time.

II. Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit a public employee from testifying on any matter not related to his or her employment.

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