Alanis Morissette once remarked, “I want to walk through life instead of being dragged through it.”
The biggest and most common mistake made by locals is to assume that important policies are decided solely at the election booth. The reality is that personalities and parties are elected in November, but policies become law between elections.
As a former staffer to both Democrats and Republicans, I’ve seen the “secrets of the temple” and discovered that getting what you want from the Legislature is sometimes as simple as just showing up.
Want to make a difference? Here’s how:
1. Don’t wait till Opening Day to get involved.
As we speak, the newly minted Hawaii Legislature is preparing for the 2019 session. Right now, committee staff are being hired, caucuses are preparing bill packages, research agencies are writing policy memos in response to legislator requests for information, and first-time legislators are looking for ways to make a name for themselves.
In the quiet weeks before Opening Day, Hawaii residents have an incredible window of opportunity to shape the next two years of our state. If there’s an issue on your heart that you feel strongly about, make it a point to engage the Legislature now. Show up in person, talk to legislators, and make your opinion known before session starts.
2. Find out who the chairs of standing committees are.
In high school civics class, we’re often taught to seek out our local representative and write or call them on issues that matter. I on the other hand make it a point to find out which subject matter committee applies to the issue I want action on, and I appeal directly to the chair for assistance.
Committee chairs have two important roles. First, they determine which bills actually get heard, and second, they get to make recommendations to the powerful House Finance and Senate Ways and Means committees on which bills make the final cut.
In the quiet weeks before Opening Day, Hawaii residents have an incredible window of opportunity to shape the next two years of our state.
Let’s say for example that you have an idea that you think might address homelessness. The first thing that you should do is approach the chair of the Human Services Committee and request an office appointment to sit down with them and discuss the issues. I usually show up with a nice flower lei as a gift, congratulate the chair on being elected/re-elected, and then get right to business.
If you’re very passionate and authoritative on the subject, you can even prepare in advance a list of things you think should be done, and give it to the chair as proposed legislation.
In my experience, I have not yet met a single chair in either chamber who was not open to introducing a bill or resolution on behalf of someone who politely sits down with them and explains the rationale for having it. Chairs often introduce legislation that they don’t necessarily personally agree with simply because they want to entertain a novel concept or explore a new idea.
3. Sign up for hearing notifications on the Capitol website.
The Legislature’s official website allows citizens to register for a free account that provides powerful public policy tools, not the least of which include customized e-mail notifications of hearing notices and the ability to electronically submit testimony through easy-to-use forms.
By signing up for hearing notifications, you can stay on top of everything the Legislature is doing and have the opportunity to track your favorite issues.
4. Show up in person to testify for committees and always request amendments.
More often than not, most hearings are poorly attended. Aside from flashpoint issues, it’s not uncommon for 10 people or less to show up to a hearing, and committees will vote based on the limited input they receive. Any citizen can show up and give 2 minutes of oral testimony and literally sway the hearts of legislators during a hearing.
Bad bills can often be transformed into good bills simply by changing a single sentence or even inserting so much as a comma between words. I make it a point not only to testify, but also to request amendments to improve the process.
5. Request waivers.
Bills receive committee referrals based on their subject matter. The more referrals a bill has, the less likely it is to be heard. Most committee chairs don’t care about the majority of bills referred to them because their hearing time is at a premium, so if you see a bill moving slowly that you like, call the committee chair who has jurisdiction over it and ask them to “waive off” — agree to drop off their committee from the referral list — to make it move faster.
6. Write floor speeches for your legislator.
Legislators love looking good in action. If a bill you care about is up for a floor vote, a powerful tactic to influence the process is to prepare written remarks in support of it, then visit legislators and ask them to read it (or insert it into the Journal as comments).
Since most legislators don’t have time to write speeches, they often rely on staff to write their remarks, who themselves are even shorter on time. Receiving a pre-prepared eloquent, to-the-point floor speech is the equivalent of a basketball free throw. I often write a speech, drop it off, then watch on Capitol TV as legislators give a rousing speech that says everything I want to hear.
7. Be polite, be reasonable, and be transactional.
Last and most important of all, remember there is power in being polite, reasonable and willing to make trades to get what you want.
Want to sway an entire committee? Visit each member and tell them what you need, then offer to support their agenda with testimony from you and all your friends in exchange for them voting on your issue.
Want to outmaneuver a lobbyist? Make friends with the legislative staffers in each office and visit them regularly to collect information about what’s going on through chitchat.
Think about the possibilities.
Is it possible to know when a bill is being heard before it’s even announced? Is it possible to know how a committee will vote before it even votes? Is it possible for Joe Q. Citizen to become a political operator? The answer depends on you.
I like what Bobby Brown once said: “I guess we’re gonna have to take control.”
Take control of the process, Hawaii. History is written by those who show up.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.