On January 8th, I testified before the House Rules Committee of the Rhode Island General Assembly in support of some rules changes proposed by the Reform Caucus for the new legislative term. It was my first time inside the State House in the capitol of the state in which I had been born and raised and spent most of my life. House rules reform is a topic that may sound surpassingly boring to most members of the public, but thanks to a bit of good local reporting and an open line of communication with my local representative, I was fortunate enough to understand that it had important implications on the structure of the system that governs us, and I was encouraged enough to provide my opinion. As it turned out many of my fellow Rhode Island residents were well ahead of me in understanding the importance of the issues at hand and showed up to share their opinions as well.
The substantive activity of the night went smoothly enough; it took hours of waiting to get my turn to speak, but I was given my few minutes to address the committee and was able to blurt out most of what I wanted to say. The feeling was rather cathartic, therapeutic, even. With impressive consensus, every member of the public who spoke argued on the same side as I did, and the committee members fulfilled their most basic requirement of sitting in their chairs for almost the entire time that we spoke. (Whether they truly heard or will take our opinions into consideration is yet to be seen).
It was all the little things surrounding the substance of the event, however, that I learned the most from. The importance of the support that fellow civilian attendees provide each other through the smallest of gestures, the winking, in-joke style of fraternization between the more frequent public testifiers and the Representatives, and the sheer, unblinking wall of apathy, dismissiveness, and mockery with which the committee members greeted their obligation to listen to the people who elect them. I mean Oh. My. God. I have seen my fair share of political TV shows on a spectrum from satire to dramatization, and I had seen the awful, inhuman rudeness with which politicians on the national stage treat their constituents, but somehow I had never imagined that people in local government, living and doing their business just down the street, people who’s JOB it is to listen to and work for the public, could treat every one of us with such brazen disrespect.
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Representatives, sitting high on their oaken stand, repeatedly and dramatically rolled their eyes (Representatives Brian Newberry and Michael Chippendale), whispered to each other and snickered while people were testifying (Representative Joseph McNamara, usually when a woman was speaking), slouched and slumped in their chairs, exited to the back room for breaks, looked at their phones (Representative Blake Filippi), and one I swear even fell asleep on his hand for about thirty seconds (Representative Robert Phillips).
Nearly every time that a committee member questioned one of the public testifiers, when their involvement seemed to verge on true engagement and debate, their point would suddenly boil down to an irrelevant semantic gotcha argument, a self-congratulatory distraction (Representative Newberry claimed, to no-one’s relief, that the House probably only passed about 125 bills in the last two days of a session, not the reported 250+), or an absurd re-framing of the political state of affairs in our state, such as when Representative Chippendale seemed to think he was refuting a resident’s testimony by saying that the Republicans have been reformers since before it was ‘cool.’ Every time the public’s testimony would expound on the problematic personality that currently holds the title of Speaker of the House, they would be told by the chair to ‘stick to the rules,’ and yet notably, every person who waxed lyrically about their favorable impression of the Speaker’s character was allowed to continue uninterrupted. Some of the most important changes being advocated by us, the People that night were aimed at making the processes of the state legislature more accessible and transparent to the public. At one crucially interesting point the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Representative Arthur Corvese, revealed just how much this notion of increased transparency bothers him. A member of the public had just begun their testimony and indicated that they worked with a politically-oriented group whom they did not wish to identify specifically. Chairman Corvese interrupted the speaker quickly to ask if hey would identify the group, and they reiterated that they would not. Corvese, sneering and turning his head away from the microphone, though not far enough, scoffed, “so much for transparency.” To see this publicly elected official, who was chair and master-of-ceremonies at a committee meeting specifically convened to receive the opinions of the general public, so hypocritically mock the level of transparency of a constituent in this way was the most deeply insulting thing that I witnessed that night (which is saying something).
Another moment of shocking (at least to me) impropriety and disrespect came earlier when I was in the overflow-room viewing the proceedings on a large TV. One member of the public, whom I gathered through comments in the room was well known for often attending hearings and providing long-winded testimonies which I’m sure must exasperate the half-listening bureaucrats, began to give their testimony without switching on the desk-mounted microphone. This proceeded without correction from the committee (who had already helped others with the microphone) for the better half of a minute. Of the five or six representatives that were in the overflow-room with me, all of them members of the Reform Caucus that I was there to support, one exclaimed with glee, “They’re not going to tell him the mic is off! They’re doing this on purpose!” All but one of the other representatives present laughed uproariously. My stomach flipped at the sight and sound of these politicians laughing at the injustice being done not only to the brave constituent (the extent of whose testimony that I did manage to hear was very informative and well-worded) but to all the constituents watching at home who would not hear and the official record which might not bear the words that were said.
Perhaps I am naïve to have expected a more fulfilling experience that night. Certainly, I am a novice to this mode of civic engagement, but in the end, I believe it is appropriate that my first-ever trip inside my State House left me shocked and stinging at the shrewd cruelty of the people who work there. To have gone inside and simply marveled at the grand marble halls and cavernous bathrooms and left with wide-eyed wonder and without this bitter taste would have given a lie to the condition of the ongoing project that is our state’s representative democracy. Overall, I think the typical resident’s view of our state government is right: The people who write our laws don’t care enough about us or each other. While I believe that many of those reformers do care about making our government fairer and more efficient, and that every representative probably believes that they mean well, the culture and procedures of that state house prevent them from being truly self-conscious, being responsive, and approaching their job with the seriousness it deserves. Most importantly, and most unfortunately, I think every member on that committee believes that they know better than the average member of the public what is good for us.
Ultimately, I hope the arguments we made that night are heeded and some little improvement is achieved by our collective action, and then I hope every member on that committee loses their seat in the next election. And then someday I hope that every other member of the General Assembly loses theirs. I hope we can purge the entire culture and style of that place where the rules of our lives are decided, and maybe we can build together a new generation of government, one in which the people who work there care deeply about each other and all whose lives their decisions affect. One in which those people act upon and embody that caring. Then perhaps this project will yet yield some more meaningful fruit.