What does proposed state legislation about guns, child abuse, women’s health and gaming have in common?
Besides touching on some of society’s hot-button issues, all of these bills are scheduled for examination and debate before the Illinois General Assembly’s House Agriculture and Conservation Committee.
The BGA was taken aback upon learning that along with bills about deer and turkey baiting, the Agriculture Committee will also weigh in on legislation pertaining to:
- concealed possession of hand guns,
- waiting periods for firearm purchases,
- changes to the criminal code for minors when handguns are involved,
- rules requiring women to have ultrasounds before having an abortion,
- required reporting of child abuse, and
It’s unusual when bills on such controversial issues are funneled to one totally unrelated committee—especially to have seven of them at once take that pathway.
Indeed, one of the first major steps toward vetting a bill is to hold a hearing in the appropriate or related committee. The purpose of that committee process is to ensure that bills that reach the House floor for a vote are sound both in form and policy.
Typically, a bill gets sent to committee based on its subject matter; for example, bills involving trains get sent to the Mass Transit committee, and bills involving banks get sent to the Financial Institutions committee.
Sometimes, a bill topic may not appear to be directly related to the committee, but there is a nexus that links the topic to the committee. For instance, a bill that concerns the environment may actually be about regulating toxins found in baby bottles. Such a bill would be rightly placed in either the Environment or the Public Health Committees.
From there, the process unfolds.
Lawmakers are assigned to different committees based on their interest and expertise in the subject matter. That enables legislators, who have been following issues for years, to weigh in and help to refine legislation, hopefully for better.
Just as important, the committee process allows citizens to have their voices heard. Any member of the public can attend a hearing and voice support for or against a bill, but it’s easier to get such feedback when legislation comes before a related committee.
Throughout the process, supporters and opponents of the legislation work with lawmakers on the committee to, in theory, make sure the bill is good public policy before making its way to the House floor for a vote.
That’s how it’s supposed to work.
But when bills are placed in committees that have nothing to do with their subject matter, the entire legislative process risks being subverted.
Pam Sutherland, head of policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois pointed out that placing a bill about women’s health into the Agriculture Committee is “like sending a hog-farming bill to the Public Health committee.”
House members were chosen to sit on the Agriculture Committee because of their expertise and interest in agriculture. They do not have the subject matter expertise that allows them to make informed decisions on legislation unrelated to that topic.
House Speaker Michael Madigan knows how to play the game and is aware that bills with little chance of passing in the correct committee can sail through another committee simply because lawmakers don’t know or care to ask the right questions.
Could that be why Madigan sent these non-agriculture bills to the Agriculture Committee?
When we called Brendan Phelps, a Democrat from downstate Harrisburg to ask why his gun and women’s health bills ended up in the Agriculture committee, he said “these issues are ‘wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve’ issues. You want to put it to a committee where it’s going to get [voted] out so you can get it to the floor.”
Steve Brown, spokesman for Speaker Madigan, says this is a practice that has gone on for decades. “If a sponsor of a bill expresses a committee preference,” he said, “then the response is to send it there.”
When asked about his proposed women’s health bill, Phelps indicated that he had not asked for the bill to end up in Agriculture, but it was likely the bill’s supporters had spoken with the Speaker’s office about getting it into a committee where it would pass.
Phelps noted that pro-gun bills have gone to the Agriculture committee for years because it’s stacked with ‘downstaters’ who tend to be more pro gun. He cited the bills placements in the Agriculture committee as a plus, noting that if it went to the committee where the other gun bills go, it would never get to the floor.
That may be true. But that speaks more to problems with the committee process than the merit of arbitrarily placing bills in committees where they have the best chance of passing.
This appears to be a blatant attempt to push bills through the committee process without the appropriate level of public scrutiny.
While this is a completely legal tactic, and does not violate House Rules, it’s not a good government approach to passing laws.
Taxpayers rely on lawmakers to make good public policy decisions.
Effective public policy comes from a robust and informed dialogue on the issues. That type of dialogue on gaming, for example, won’t likely occur in the Agriculture Committee.
Bills completely unrelated to the subject matter of the committee to which they have been assigned should be sent to the appropriate committee, and future committee assignments should be made with subject matter in mind.
The following list of bills were sent to the Agriculture and Conservation Committee:
HB0148 FIREARMS-CONCEALED CARRY
HB1403 CONCEALED CARRY-PERMITS
HB1514 CRIM CD-FIREARMS WAITING
HB1919 ULTRASOUND OPPORTUNITY ACT
HB2045 CRIM CD-MINOR-FIREARM-PREEMPTS
HB2093 DCFS-CHILD ABUSE-REQUIRED RPTS
HB2881 HORSERACING – ADVANCE WAGERING