Conference Committee

moon-322222_1280In the waning hours of the 2015 Hawaii Legislature, the public remains in the dark about the status of both “good” and “bad” bills.  If Sunshine Laws are supposed to be the epitome of good government, conference committee would be considered “the dark side of the moon”. [1]

The goal of a conference committee is to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of the same piece of legislation.  No public testimony is delivered at these conference committee hearings.  In fact, no debate takes place.  The hearing portion of a conference committee is a mere formality where representatives from both chambers gavel in just long enough to accept/reject the most recent proposal for a bill.

“Conference committee is where good bills go to die.”

Instead, decision-making during conference committee rests almost exclusively with the committee chairs on each side.  Differences are hashed out behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the public.  In these dark, smoke-filled rooms, can be any number of special-interest groups, political players and other legislators (who either bought or have been granted personal access to powerful elected officials) looking to implement their personal priorities, even when those priorities are not in the best interest of the public.

While votes are taken to conclude a successful string of conference committee hearings, these votes too are rather ceremonial.  In order to be appointed to a conference committee, one cannot have opposed the bill on any prior votes.  In that respect, what is supposed to be a process of vetting and refining ideas instead breeds a culture of mutually-reinforced approval.  Only in the instance where a “poison pill” [2] has been deliberately inserted into a bill does any piece of legislation fail to advance.  Votes like these are not an accident – they are deliberate acts to end debate and to leave the public wondering, “what happened”?

If a bill is fated to die, the most likely fate is to allow it to expire with the corresponding legislative deadline.  Bills with fiscal implications must pass out of conference committee by today (May 1st), and bills with no fiscal implications had to advance out of conference committee by yesterday (April 30th).  Unfortunately, when bills die in conference committee, there is no trace of how or why the bill died.  There is no accountability – there is no Sunshine.

The lack of any accounting mechanisms sits well with legislators who scoff at transparency and Sunshine Law.  When the public is finally informed that a much needed bill (like a proposal to extend the rail tax surcharge [3]) is dead, tracing the exact cause is a forensic impossibility.  Above the shredded document that litters the floor will be several legislators pointing fingers at each other while no one takes responsibility.  The public will be told by a smiling legislator like Sylvia Luke or Jill Tokuda with a shoulder shrug and a sound bite where they say “We just ran out of time.”  This is the “official position”, the one that legislators use to shrug off accountability and to blind the public with smoke and mirrors.

In the case of the rail surcharge mentioned above, the public will be none the wiser since both legislators took turns adding poison pills while the bill was on the dark side of the moon.   If a poisoned bill manages to hobble past the conference committee, it will still be a bitter pill to swallow in the floor vote to follow.

It is important to note that conference committee is not something that is intrinsically bad.  Intentions lie with the individuals who are using it.  It is like an eight-inch chef’s knife that can be used to chop vegetables to feed soup to the homeless.  That same knife can also be used on a methamphetamine-fueled home invasion against a God-fearing suburban family to rob them of their money or even their lives.

In this respect, it is frightening that unethical legislators (proven by their actions) like Sylvia Luke and Scott Saiki are holding the gun with their finger on the trigger, ready to kill a bill when the light of Sunshine flickers long enough to conceal who the real killer is.  All the public is left to do is count the “bodies” when legislators allow the Sunshine back in.  That body count will start tomorrow.

The question I pose to you:

If a bill dies in conference committee, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

With the lack of scrutiny by local news media, it clearly does not.  And that is exactly what unethical legislators want.

[1] Even despite this contrast, the dark side of the moon is still two shades brighter than Sylvia Luke’s office – where all light is swallowed in a manner not unlike the black holes that the Thirty-Meter Telescope would study.

[2] A “poison pill” is a term of art referring to a provision that is difficult to swallow.  For example, a proposal to erect a telescope (an endeavor that would normally enjoy broad support for advancement of education and science) could face stiff opposition if a provision was added to place the telescope atop an area of cultural significance (e.g. Mauna Kea).

[3] The rail surcharge is being used as an example (much like the TMT telescope example above) and should not be construed as this blog’s support or opposition in any way, shape or form regarding those proposals.