How legislators bully those testifying in committee hearings with comments, not questionsCommenting on someone’s testimony without allowing them an opportunity to defend themselves is bullying, something intellectual cowards do to score cheap rhetorical victories. Though it may be allowed under the rules of the General Assembly, it cheapens the debate and exposes the hypocrisy of elected legislators who are far out of their depth.
Published on May 10, 2023
By Steve Ahlquist
Testifying at a Rhode Island General Assembly committee hearing can feel pretty overwhelming. Most people, who are not professional lobbyists, only go to committee hearings to testify on issues that they have a strong connection to. These are people so committed to an idea that they rearrange their work and family schedules, only to wait hours inside hot hallways and cramped committee rooms for the opportunity to be granted three minutes – or less – to express their concerns.
During these hearings, committee members – elected representatives and senators – are able to ask questions of those testifying. These interactions, at their best, allow legislators to go deeper into an issue, and learn more about points of view that are different from their own. The privilege of being able to respond and comment on testimony can be abused, however, as Senator Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester) demonstrated on Tuesday evening during the Senate Judiciary hearings on the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act (EACA).
The strategy Senator de la Cruz employed during the hearing was to make comments about the testimony, not ask questions of those testifying. In this way, the Senator was able to call several of those testifying liars, and if the person testifying attempted to defend themselves from these accusations, they were shut down by the Committee Chair. Below is the first of many examples from Tuesday night’s hearing, where Senator de la Cruz commented on what she considered to be the “inaccurate or false” testimony of Tammy Brown, speaking in support of the EACA on behalf of The Womxn Project.
As you can see, when Brown attempted to defend herself, Senator de la Cruz hid behind her Senatorial privilege, with the help of Vice Chair Frank Lombardi (Democrat, District 26, Cranston). Video and transcript below:
“Miss Brown, you mentioned that Rhode Islanders are denied access. Not true,” said Senator de la Cruz. “Abortion is legal…”
“I think that’s your opinion,” said Brown.
“Abortion is legal,” restated Senator de la Cruz, as Senator Lombardi stepped in.
“We’re not going to get…” said Senator Lombardi.
“I don’t know that it’s fair for her to…” began Brown.
“I apologize,” said Senator Lombardi. “But to the extent that there’s a question being asked, we’ll give you an opportunity to answer it. If it’s a statement, then each Senator has the prerogative to do that, okay? Thank you.”
“Okay,” said Brown.
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“Thank you Mr. Chairman,” said Senator de la Cruz. “So women are not denied access to abortions in Rhode Island…”
“That is untrue,” said Brown.
“And you also stated that some folks have access and some don’t – also not true,” said Senator de la Cruz. “Access is available to all women.”
“You don’t have access if you can’t afford to pay,” said Brown.
“Ma’am,” interrupted Senator Lombardi. “I have to insist. [Senator de la Cruz] has a right and I understand it’s a polarizing issue. She has a right to say something and she’s not asking you a question. I’m going to ask you to please refrain from…”
“I will also say that it’s very…” said Brown.
“Thank you,” interrupted Senator Lombardi.
“Also, the last point was that we prohibit choice and access, also not true. Thank you Mr. Chairman,” said Senator de la Cruz.
Commenting on someone’s testimony without allowing them an opportunity to defend themselves is bullying, something intellectual cowards do to score cheap rhetorical victories. Though it may be allowed under the rules of the General Assembly, it cheapens the debate and exposes the hypocrisy of elected legislators who are far out of their depth.
If you had heard Tammy Brown’s testimony, you would understand why Senator de la Cruz was so afraid to let her speak. You can watch the video and read the transcript below:
“I’m a lifelong Rhode Islander, a decades long voter and a concerned citizen. I’m also on the board of the Woman Project Education Fund and I’m here to testify in strong support of the Equality in Abortion Coverage Act.
“In 2019, we as advocates, and the Rhode Island populace at large, fought hard to codify the ability to access abortion into Rhode Island state law. This policy was vitally important as a matter of reproductive justice and human dignity, and it was widely supported by the elected officials in the Rhode Island Senate, as well as the wide majority of the Rhode Island public. The passage of that bill was an acknowledgement that the right to determine your own destiny, when it comes to when and if you want to become a parent, is a central aspect of what it means to be entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to be a full participant in our society.
“While we are proud of the work we did then to secure the right to safe abortion in the State of Rhode Island, across the country, the ability to access to abortion care has been limited or eliminated for millions of Americans. And here in Rhode Island, we know the right still isn’t real for tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who are covered by Medicaid and state employee health insurance. Safe, affordable access to abortion should have no bearing on your financial means or where you work. Low income people and the people who work hard every day to keep our state running should not be denied access to basic and vital reproductive care. We should not create a two-tiered system where some folks have access to care and others don’t.
“And let’s be real. We know that the burden of abortion coverage bans falls hardest on low-income women and women of color. In a free and just society we must not let politics stand in the way of health and human dignity. The EACA upholds the values of justice, equity, and non-discriminatory access to healthcare. It is not the role of the legislature or the government to make healthcare decisions for individuals, and it’s not the role of the individual taxpayer to treat the tax code as an a la carte buffet, choosing where they spend their money and what they don’t spend it on.
“With all due respect, the time for political games are over. It’s time to stop playing politics with our bodies. We fought hard to make strides toward reproductive justice in 2019 and we will not stop fighting until that right is real for all Rhode Islanders. We know this bill has strong support in both chambers. It just passed the House, but Rhode Islanders don’t have time to wait. For every month that goes by without the passage of the EACA, more Rhode Islanders will be put in the perilous position of choosing between having enough food or paying their rent on time and vital reproductive care. We will keep showing up both here and at the polls to make sure we secure the right to safe and affordable healthcare for everyone. Thank you.“