Democracy in Action

This has been a big week for my participation in the institutions of what passes for democracy here in Texas. Saturday I voted, but that's not particularly exciting. The new and novel, though perhaps not "exciting," thing I did this morning was testifying before a Senate committee. It was an interesting experience, and I certainly learned more about the process of bills becoming laws than I ever did from Schoolhouse Rock.
Much, much cuter than SB 1370...

I was down at the Senate here in Austin to testify against Senate Bill 1370, which, among other things, would cut some state employees' health care benefits by 50% - and those state employees include graduate students. We'd have to pay the other 50% out of pocket, and given how little we grad students make in the first place, that translates into a 15% pay cut - and that's just for single folks. Anyone with dependents insured through the university will face a far steeper pay cut. But hey, single people will still be making a comfortable $2200 per year more than the federal poverty level, so why complain?

Yeah. So we complained.

I'll be the first to admit that there are larger issues out there to be worried about than state employees' health care. At least state employees have, you know, employment. And we're not living in a war-torn country. But this is what was on my mind when I sat down to write, and so here it is.

The committee hearing was at 8 am, and we managed to gather about thirty grad students to testify - and getting thirty grad students not only up and about but professionally dressed at that hour is an impressive feat in and of itself. That alone should've convinced the committee, but, as I learned, it takes a lot more than that - especially if the committee has already made up its mind.

The first thing I discovered is that just because a senator is ON the committee doesn't mean that he or she will actually show up to the committee meeting. The room had an impressive, curved table at the front, facing the audience, with little name plates for each one of the committee members. Those name plates were all we saw of most of the committee.

In fact, of the fifteen members of the state senate finance committee, only about four or five were in the room at any given time. Some of them at least sent aides, who sat looking at the audience from behind the comfy chair reserved for the senator. Some didn't even bother with that. Even more fascinating was the fact that even the bill's sponsor wasn't in the room all the time; during one set of grad students' testimonies, he just got up and left for a while. The whole process took less than two hours, so it's not like he was being asked to sit through The Two Towers without a bathroom break.

Sure, some of these senators are on other committees that meet at the same time, or attending other hearings. Still, I doubt that more than half the senators who weren't there had a good reason not to be there. It's just a guess, and maybe my innate distrust of the Texas Legislature, but there it is. I'm guessing they just decided to give it a miss, because our testimony didn't matter to them anyway.

Distrust of the Texas Legislature - or the Lege, as it is unaffectionately called - runs deep here in Austin. The Lege only convenes once every two years, but when it does, look out. It tries to legislate everything from classroom grading criteria to public morality, and so while the legislature is in town, everyone tries to lay low. After all, if you don't, the Lege might notice your existence - and that's almost never a good thing.

So we sat there, in a hearing room crowded with witnesses, but not with legislators, and waited for the invited witnesses to testify before they moved on to those people who'd signed witness cards that morning. They called us up in groups of three or four, and everyone had two minutes to say their piece. While the witnesses were talking, well, it was nothing like those televised hearings you sometimes see when you're flipping past C-Span on your way to TNT. Half the time it looked like only the chair and vice-chair of the committee were paying attention; other committee members were chatting with their aides, leaving, coming back, talking to each other...

I know they have a lot to do. And they have a lot of responsibility. But would it kill them to have just half the committee in the room when they're holding official, public hearings? To listen when people talk about their battle with cancer or their fears that they will not be able to support their two children? To listen when people mention the duties of instructors, the real dependence of the university on us, the vital importance of health care? To have at least the semblance of that democratic process we heard so much about from Schoolhouse Rock?

More bills in this picture than we had committee members at the hearing.

But I have a feeling that the reason they weren't there has something to do with decisions that have already been made. Schoolhouse Rock is all well and good, but many congressfolk have already made up their minds on how they're going to vote before they hear any testimony on the matter. The Texas legislature on the whole is not only very conservative, but they seem to really distrust higher education, and think we're all a bunch of pinko commies. Which, to be fair, some of us are (and some of us aren't) - but that's no reason to deny us health care, especially when we teach so many of the introductory courses that freshmen are required to take, and there are, in fact, twice as many graduate student instructors as there are faculty here at UT. Seriously, Texas universities would fall apart if they didn't have grad students to teach all those required courses.

And as the Daily Texan pointed out, there's another misconception at work here: "These penny-pinching legislative efforts reveal a distorted and unrealistic image of the typical graduate student as a twenty-something, upper-middle-class single person. In reality, the average graduate student is closer to 30, can hardly make ends meet, and often has a family."

But never mind. They had made up their minds before we even got to that hearing, and so most of them didn't show, and aside from the chair and vice-chair, those that did show up for the most part chatted during our two-minute testimonies. We got the definite impression that our testimony simply didn't matter.

Taking part in the democratic process is supposed to be empowering - except that what you discover, live and in person, is that the process isn't quite so democratic after all. (And even if you already understand this from following the news, seeing it in person still takes you aback.) By the time the public at large gets involved, the lobbyists have already had their say, and what they say matters far more than anything that concerned citizens might have to offer. Money talks, and whatever state employees might be, we sure as hell aren't money.

Last week, I called my representative's office to give my opinion on a bill being voted on in the House. I got into a conversation with the staffer who answered the phone, who, as a state employee herself, was quite aware of the threat of benefit cuts. My representative was voting against the bill in question, but, she said, "It probably won't matter. If the Speaker of the House is for it, then it's going to pass. He just pushes everything through." A little while later, she confided, "Things are getting so bad here, and they keep getting worse. I keep thinking maybe I should leave, you know?"

Yep. I know. And I also know that the sad fact of the matter is that even 50% health coverage is still better than a lot of people have. (And grad students, in theory, are on a track that will get us better paying jobs in the future - except the reality of the job market is that many of us won't get those jobs. There are far more graduates than jobs.) The legislature is cutting programs and benefits left and right, and the only ones not suffering are the corporations. (Corporate employees? Sure, they're suffering too. But corporations? No.)

Um. Yeah. Well, it's a nice idea...

And yet, on some level, I'm grateful for the honesty. Hardly anyone on that committee cared what we had to say, and they didn't bother pretending that they did. I'm not who they're beholden to. I'm not the one financing their re-election campaigns.

Government by the people, for the people? Hardly. We're not even pretending anymore.


NB: After writing this, I found out that, although they'd indicated the bill wouldn't be voted on today, it was voted on this afternoon - and it passed committee, 8 - 3. Four members apparently didn't bother voting at all.


6. May 2003


Schoolhouse Rock:
This is what they tell us in school...
but this is one bill I wish had died in committee

Music & Lyrics by Dave

Boy: Whew! You sure gotta climb a lot of steps to get to this Capitol Building here in
Washington. But I wonder who that sad little scrap of paper is?

Bill: I'm just a bill.
Yes, I'm only a bill.
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it's a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It's a long, long wait
While I'm sitting in committee,
But I know I'll be a law some day
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill.

Boy: Gee, Bill, you certainly have a lot of patience and courage.

Bill: Well, I got this far. When I started I wasn't even a bill, I was just an idea. Some folks back home decided they wanted a law passed, so they called their local Congressman, and said, "You're right, there oughta be a law."
Then he sat down and wrote me out and introduced me to Congress. And I became a bill, and I'll remain a bill until they decide to make me a law.
I'm just a bill
Yes I'm only a bill,
And I got as far as Capitol Hill.
Well, now I'm stuck in committee
And I'll sit here and wait
While a few key Congressmen discuss
and debate
Whether they should let me be a law.
How I hope and pray that they will,
But today I am still just a bill.

Boy: Listen to those Congressmen arguing! Is all that discussion and debate about you?

Bill: Yeah,
I'm one of the lucky ones. Most bills never even get this far. I hope they
decide to report on me favorably, otherwise I may die.

Boy: Die?

Bill: Yeah, die in committee. Ooh, but it looks like I'm gonna live!
Now I go to the House of Representatives, and they vote on me.

Boy: If they vote yes, what happens?

Bill: Then I go to the Senate and the whole thing starts all over again.

Boy: Oh no!

Bill: Oh yes!
I'm just a bill
Yes, I'm only a bill
And if they vote for me on Capitol Hill
Well, then I'm off to the White House
Where I'll wait in a line
With a lot of other bills
For the president to sign
And if he signs me, then I'll be a law.
How I hope and pray that he will,
But today I am still just a bill.

Boy: You mean even if the whole Congress says you should be a law, the president can still say no?

Bill: Yes, that's called a veto. If the president vetoes
me, I have to go back to Congress and they vote on me again, and by that time you're so old...

Boy: By that time it's very unlikely that you'll become a law. It's not easy to become a law, is it?

Bill: No!
But how I hope and pray that I will,
But today I am still just a bill.

Congressman: He signed you, Bill! Now you're a law!

Bill: Oh yes!!

(Which is not, in this context, a happy ending.)

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