Floor Debates and the Creation of New Law

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(Host) As the legislative session nears an end, lawmakers are debating the bills that have been hammered out in the past few months. The debates can consume hours of lawmakers’ time. They sometimes extend a session at the expense of taxpayers.

VPR’s Steve Zind looks at the role of the floor debate in the legislative process.

(Zind) Floor debate is the tip of the lawmaking iceburg. The real work is done earlier by committees taking testimony and writing the legislation. But when we see our legislators at work, it’s usually on the floor of the House or Senate when they rise to argue the merits or flaws of a bill:

(Legislator) “I would ask the body if that is an encouraging thing to do – to a company that wants to give money to a school, knowing that it’s going to be whacked with an extra tax here. Ummm. I lost my train of thought….”

(Zind) Floor debate doesn’t always produce memorable oratory. Legislators use logic, mixed with emotion and occasional humor to win votes. They cajole, scold, argue, lecture and vent:

(Legislator) “Mr. Speaker, may I speak on a note of personal frustration?”
(Speaker) “No you may not, but you may address the amendment if you choose.”

(Zind) The rules governing how long a legislator can speak are minimal. Theoretically, a debate could drag on for days. But Senator Bill Doyle of Washington County says there are self-governing forces at work:

(Doyle) “I think if people rise too often, sometimes people will give a hint by leaving the room and let them know they’ve spoken too long. People who speak too long on too many issues lose their influence.”

(Zind) Doyle says the wise lawmaker speaks only when he has something new to add to the debate. Margaret Hummel is a three-term Representative from Underhill. Hummel remembers when, halfway through her second year at the State House, she rose to speak for the first time:

(Hummel) “And I was scared to death! My knees shook. My hands shook.”

(Zind) Hummel says floor debate has some important functions:

(Hummel) “Floor debate is usually how the message gets out to the public at large about what we’re doing. Reporters sit here and take notes and write their articles.”

(Zind) Hummel says floor debate is more than a show for the folks back home. It’s where legislators learn important details about bills. Hummel says on some occasions, she’s made up her mind on an issue as a result of floor debate. That’s where an eloquent, persuasive speaker can make a difference. Sergeant at Arms Kermit Spaulding says there have been many spirited debates at the Statehouse, but none more emotional that the debate over civil unions legislation:

(Legislator) “The hundreds of people who have said to me with such indignation, ‘shouldn’t the majority rule?’ And the answer is, no. Not in America. Not in America where the issue is the constitutional rights of each citizen.”

(Zind) Spaulding says the emotion surrounding the civil unions was the greatest test of the rules of floor debate. He says a respect for the process kept things from getting out of hand:

(Spaulding) “Both sides really maintained the decorum of this great building.”

(Zind) Spaulding says the floor debate is one of the hallmarks of a democratic government. More than just a soapbox for legislators, floor debate acts as a crucible to test the strength of a bill before it’s passed into law.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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