by Serena Ahmed, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
For the past two months, at least half of my work week as a policy analyst for the Legislative Study Group has been spent in committee hearings. I typically sit in the back of the room with my computer on my lap, so that I can take notes on every bill being heard that day. Bills are primarily referred to committees based on subject matter. The committee chair and her clerks plan the committee schedule each week, including what bills will be heard that day and organizing the order by which they will be heard. The order is not known to the public beforehand – just like most of the bill process, that happens “behind the scenes.” When it is a bill’s time to be presented and delved into, the author, who is a member of the Texas House of Representatives, gives an opening statement describing the background and purpose to the committee. Representatives who are members of the committee may ask questions of the author during the opening and closing statement, and they do so by pushing a button near their microphone that alerts the chairwoman that they wish to ask a question. After the author’s opening statement, witnesses testify in support of, against or neutral on the bill. There is typically a three-minute time limit, but this tends to be enforced inconsistently; it is enforced more often when it is late after a long day, or when the committee is trying to finish before the House floor convenes. The Representatives may ask questions of the witnesses. The bills are then “left pending in committee” and only live to move on to the next step in the procedure if they are voted out of committee. Most bills never even get voted on by the committee.
One of the best memories I have of a hearing was during a meeting of the Business and Industry (B&I) Committee. This is the primary committee devoted to the conflictual relationships between employers and employees. As such, all the bills for the 85th session related to increasing the minimum wage statewide were referred to B&I. The committee organized it so that all 8 or 10 of them were heard on the same day. It was exciting. The press was there. The room was packed with different activist groups there to testify and support, including Fight for 15. Fight for 15 started a few years ago with a few hundred fast-food workers that protested in New York City for a $15 minimum wage and a right to unionize. It grew into an international movement comprised of hundreds of thousands of workers in a wide variety of industries.
One Fight for 15 activist and worker who testified that day on behalf of increasing the current Texas minimum wage from $7.25/hour left me with thoughts and feelings of respect and awe for their bravery and commitment to social and economic equality. In front of a room where most of the people were not going to agree, they talked about the greedy hand of capitalism. They were laughed at and brushed aside, while far right-wing testimony is never so simply casted off in this context. It was proclaimed that the witness and testimony could not be taken seriously. It was unsurprisingly casual and typical, while simultaneously so difficult to just sit there and watch all at the same time.
These bills on increasing the minimum wage were heard a couple of months ago. It is clear that they will not be voted on in committee, yet alone referred to the Calendars committee to even be considered for a House floor vote. “Calendars” is where bills go if they are voted out of committee. Many bills die during this stage of the bill procedure because the Calendars committee decides that they will not vote them to the House floor. No one from the public witnesses this stage at all.
Like any realist, I believe in incremental change. This is a simple fact of life. The question is what change are we moving towards. I want to be a part of radical, structural change. One that is not afraid to question systems that may seem so ingrained and natural, but in actuality are just a few minutes in the history of humanity.
I am so thankful for my experiences here. However, I cannot wait until May 29th when my journey continues outside of the space of the Capitol. I did not need this experience to come to the realization that this is not where the radical changes will find nourishment and grow, but it is certainly an excellent reminder each day. I am so excited and looking forward to spending my life organizing and educating with a variety of communities and groups, and slowly but surely building a radical base of progressive critical consciousness in both theory and action.