News: CJ Exclusives

House Rule Could Prevent Last-Minute Committee Surprises

Rule says bill substitutes must be filed night before committee meetings

A new rule adopted by the state House could mean that representatives would face fewer surprises at committee meetings, and members of the public with interest in specific legislation also could be better informed. If honored by House members, the rule could bring more openness to the General Assembly.

“We’re really just tying to increase transparency,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who chairs the House Rules Committee.

The new rule says that updated versions of legislation to be considered in committee — in legislative jargon known as a proposed committee substitute, or PCS — must be transmitted to committee members and to the bill’s sponsor by 9 p.m. the night before a committee meeting. Lewis said the PCS also would be available electronically to members of the public.

A PCS can vary from minor technical or grammatical changes to legislation to a complete rewrite of a bill. Sometimes, a lawmaker will use a PCS to strip the language of a bill entirely and replace it with a new version covering different subject material.

“It’s hard for people to walk into a room and try to understand a 40-page document you’ve never seen before,” Lewis said.

The N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform has endorsed the change. Jane Pinsky, director of the group, said she recalls attending a legislative committee meeting years ago and seeing a “well-written PCS” being distributed during the last 15 minutes of the meeting. The document was dramatically different than the previous version, she said.

“It was clear that many of the committee members hadn’t seen it,” Pinsky said. “They didn’t know what to do with it.”

Lewis said that the House committee chairs have embraced the new rule. “They want folks to know what’s going on, too, to be fully able to participate in committee,” Lewis said.

He said the rule would help committee members seeking to amend or modify a bill. If they can get the rewrite earlier, there will be more time to make sure that amendments are technically correct and cite the appropriate page and line numbers.

Pinsky said the rule would aid members of the public who have an interest in specific legislation or topics.

“If I’m a citizen and I’m interested in the bill … I could see the PCS the night before and let my legislator know what I think,” Pinsky said. “If I’m a citizen and [the PCS] comes up in the middle of a committee meeting, I would have no way of knowing about it until the committee has already taken action.”

Lewis hopes that having the bill rewrites available early will allow committees to be more thorough. If the details of legislative proposals are worked out in committee, broader policy debates can take place when a bill reaches the House floor.

“It’ll hopefully cut down on the less-significant debate on the floor if they’ve been able to participate in committee,” Lewis said.

Lewis gives former Rep. Melanie Goodwin, D-Richmond, credit for the idea of making proposed committee substitutes available the night before a committee meeting.

Before the GOP gained a majority in the House, Goodwin co-chaired the House Elections Laws and Campaign Finance Reform Committee. “She always to the best of her ability made sure the PCS was available the night before,” Lewis said.

When Republicans won House control in 2010, Lewis chaired the House Elections Committee and said he tried to continue Goodwin’s practice in that committee.

“A lot of silly questions and needless debate are done away with if the members have the bill in advance,” Lewis said.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.