The Study Committee That Never Was

In the past, I have referred to legislative study committees as “the last refuge of legislative delay,” the fallback option when a bill that would actually do something gives lawmakers a raging case of the fantods. The Legislature has an insatiable appetite for creating study committees or task forces or, when they want to look as serious as possible, Blue Ribbon Commissions.

The appointed group then goes out and dutifully performs its task, and reports back to the Legislature — where the findings rarely, if ever, change anybody’s mind. More often than not, the report gets a warm reception followed by a quick trip to a dusty shelf.

There are exceptions; the panel on public sector pension reform did much to move a difficult process forward. But those cases are rare. Usually, formation of a study committee is just another way to kick the can down the road.

But I’ve come across a truly egregious example of a toothless study committee. I found one that seemingly never met, heard testimony, or gathered information, and never filed a report.

I’m talking about the Study Committee on Lobbying Activities of Organizations Receiving State Funds, organized by the state Senate in 2013 after some solons raised concerns with such organizations effectively using taxpayer funds on Statehouse lobbying.

I wrote about this in yesterday’s post exploring two continents on Lobby World. But there’s more to say about what happens when a study committee fails to achieve its purpose.

Which is, apparently, nothing at all.

The Study Committee still has a page on the Legislature’s website. It lists no meetings at all, no hearings, no witnesses, and no documents entered into the record in 2013, 2014, 2015 or 2016. By then, I’m sure everybody had forgotten about the whole thing. And the lobbying went on unabated.

Now, I can’t absolutely prove the committee never did anything. But there’s no sign of activity of any sort in the record. I checked with the Senate offices, Legislative Counsel and the state archives. (A librarian there told me the Archives contained many, but not all, study committee reports. They receive and store whatever they’re given, but some reports never get there. Seems a little slipshod, no?)

There is, on the Legislature’s website, a list of study committees with links to their pages. It’s an insanely long list because there are so damn many of the things. I did a keyword search for the committee and came up with nothing, as did a helpful staffer at Leg Counsel.

I think it’s safe to conclude that the Study Committee never, in fact, accomplished a single damn thing. That’s what the record seems to indicate.

So what happens when a study committee doesn’t do its work? Nothing. Bills creating study panels often include a deadline, but no penalties for failure to accomplish the task. I suppose it’s assumed that a study committee wouldn’t dare to completely drop the ball, but there are no consequences.

In this particular case, the enabling resolution did not include a deadline. Here’s the relevant language:

Resolved: That the Committee may conduct hearings, may administer oaths to and examine under oath any person, and shall have the power to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of books, records, papers, vouchers, accounts, or documents.

“May” conduct hearings. “May” administer oath and examine any person.”

“May.” Not “shall.” Leaving it up to the committee.

I have to conclude that nobody really wanted any such report. It might have led to new limits on the practice, which would have raised plenty of hackles in the lobbying community. The seven Senators appointed to the committee were among the most experienced members of the body: John Campbell, Jane Kitchel, Kevin Mullin, Bobby Starr, Richard Westman, Jeanette White, and, most tellingly, Dick Sears.

Sears is the one who raised the concern in the first place. He was on the committee. He was, even then, a Senate veteran who knew his way around the place and had a deserved reputation for doggedness in pursuing issues of interest. He didn’t notice the inactivity on an issue he’d brought up himself?

Anyway. Next time you see a bill diluted down from policy change to study committee, remember the sad case of the Study Committee on Lobbying Activities of Organizations Receiving State Funds, a decent enough idea that died, unloved and unnoticed, in a quiet corner of the Statehouse.

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