Participating in public hearings of the Connecticut legislature, especially when it seems like many legislators do not care to understand what issues citizens are facing, is often a frustrating experience. For the last several years, hearings have been held over Zoom and we have participated from our homes and offices rather than gathering in rooms at the legislative office building. Unfortunately, we still observe elected representatives grandstanding and showing a disregard for public input.
On March 14, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on several youth justice bills and on gun legislation. Two hundred and twenty-seven people signed up to testify. At three minutes per person, the hearing could have been expected to last more than eleven hours, even if legislators on the committee asked no questions and made no comments, and everyone who was on the list delivered their testimony.
A public hearing is supposed to be about hearing from the public regarding their input on the bills on the committee’s agenda. However, it appears that some legislators, rather than making an effort to listen to understand the issues being brought forward, instead use their time to cross-examine and discredit any constituent whose life experience or opinion varies from their own. During the day, a few legislators used a number of tactics such as drilling down on whether someone understood some very technical nature buried in a particular bill, asking if that person had ever been incarcerated, and if so for what, and pushing back on people based on their age, as if being young should disqualify someone from having a voice. In one example, one representative used extreme fearmongering, asking what the person believed should happen to a hypothetical youth who committed multiple murders.
We have observed multiple legislators use these techniques in a troubling pattern during the course of this session. Holding hearings over Zoom made it easier for subject matter experts to participate in hearings even if they don’t live in the state of Connecticut. Legislators therefore had the opportunity to ask questions in real-time of people who “know their stuff.” However, too often, we’ve seen legislators ask not even a single question of people who have the answers, but instead ask very nuanced questions of community members, many of whom are testifying in front of a legislature for the very first time.
What are they proving by such actions? The approach is very effective if the goal is to make sure the legislator creates a soundbite that they can use in an advertisement come election time or to put on their social media for their constituents who aren’t watching the actual hearings so that the legislator can say that they are “tough on crime” or “protecting the way of life” in their town. It’s a performance, and it may appeal to certain parts of the electorate. But for those of us who are trying to advance substantive policy discussions, or address root problems, it’s an exercise in frustration.
Other elected officials take a different approach. When members of the public who agree with their position come before the committee, some legislators engage each one in lengthy conversations, repeating the same talking points throughout the day, with nothing new being added to the discussion. As a result, the hearing that started at 10:00 am dragged on into the night with many potential speakers dropping off.
Whether the motivation is to score points for reelection, to discourage others from speaking up, or simply to discount the peoples’ testimony is irrelevant. The result is the same. Legislators are not listening, and that is contrary to what the Connecticut General Assembly website would lead us to believe: “Your elected state legislators want to know what you think of proposed legislation before they vote on it. You can telephone them or write them letters to express your views. Another effective way of getting your point across is speaking at a public hearing.” Speaking at a public hearing when legislators are not listening (or are – as usually happens – in multiple hearings or meetings simultaneously) does not feel effective. At least when hearings were held in person at the building, you could see how many legislators were physically present in the room. Now, you have to look for faces in boxes on the screen and hope that some of them are paying attention.
Let us be clear. The public wants to be heard. 227 members of the public signed up to speak that day. The representatives and senators can debate the issues and share their views in other settings. The behavior of some elected officials during public hearings makes a mockery of the public hearing process and does a disservice to the public, the other legislators on the committee, and to democracy.
Neither of us are elected officials. We want to acknowledge the time and effort that members of the legislature, all of whom sit on multiple committees, put forward to serve their constituents and all of the residents of the state of Connecticut in the best way that they know how. What we are asking is that you consider doing your jobs a little differently during public hearings. Engage with the public in good faith. Ask questions to understand, rather than ensure that your point of view is understood. Public hearings are for you to hear from us, the public. Please know that for members of the public, taking the time to write testimony, sign up for a public hearing, and wait to testify is its own way of service. If you want us to respect you, you need to show that same respect to us.