Commentary

07/24/2015 by Phillip Ung

Let’s encourage debate, not silence opponents

Before the Legislature’s summer recess, the Capitol was buzzing with several legislative committees deciding the fate of dozens of bills. Policy committee work is not glamorous, but it is an essential part of the democratic process that should be respected.

Among all of the hearings one incident stood out and for really unfortunate reasons.

The Assembly Labor and Employment Committee was hearing the latest proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage. The legislation was going to survive the committee, which is weighted five to two in the Democrats' favor. The bill itself is not what caught people’s attention; it was the interaction that ensued.

After 30 minutes of discussion on the bill, the committee’s chair, Assembly Member Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina), had apparently run out of patience with the discussion and ordered a vote before members of the committee could offer final comments and questions.

What happened next was caught on video, exploded in the Twittersphere, and will likely go down in Capitol history as a classic moment in legislative dysfunction.

An argument ensued between the Democratic chair and the Republican vice chair about how the debate was handled. At one point, Mr. Hernandez reached across the dais and shut off the microphone of Assembly Member Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach), the committee’s vice chair and a vocal conservative. Mr. Hernandez then proceeded to instruct Capitol security to turn off and then take away Mr. Harper’s microphone altogether. Removing the microphone effectively prevents Mr. Harper from speaking for the rest of the committee’s proceeding.

The Twitter-lash came from conservative media luminaries like John Hrabe, Jon Fleischman and from the Assembly Republican Caucus. So while few people attend these hearings, the incident went viral in the capital bubble and beyond. Harper later sent a release: “Blocking discussion in this manner is unfair, undemocratic and soils the decorum of the Assembly.”

Unfortunately reputations are often shaped by extreme, not the routine. Fair or not, in this case, the Legislature was cast as a venue where opposing views are not tolerated.

Legislative decorum can promote or erode a healthy democratic process.

Hyper-partisanship -- and the incivility and dysfunction it spawns -- prompted voters to adopt foundational reforms like citizen redistricting, open primaries, and changes to term limits in hopes of ending the statehouse gridlock. Reforms have contributed to an environment where people are encouraged to work together to solve problems. 

California Forward believes that effective governance requires collaboration, open communication, vibrant debate and, yes at times, disagreeing without being disrespectful. Just last year, California pundits lauded bipartisan cooperation that resulted in enactment of the water bond and the budget’s new rainy day fund, which were negotiated by both parties and led to overwhelming approval by the voters.

Bipartisanship begins by listening to one another’s ideas and concerns, and identifying opportunities of agreement. Shutting down debates does a disservice to voters by prematurely ending productive discussion and forcibly silencing opponents. People need to be encouraged to express their opinions on important issues debates and stop unplugging literal and figurative microphones.

Phillip Ung is director of public affairs for CA Fwd.

Categories: Democracy, Government, Accountability, Governance Reform, Transparency

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