During the legislative session, there are occasional opportunities for citizens to make a public statement on a bill. This is usually in the form of a public hearing. Public hearings are one way that important issues are brought to the attention of the media, elected officials, and, of course, the public. Sometimes it can be useful to persuade legislators to hold a public hearing on a particular bill. Other times, legislators themselves will decide to hold a hearing.
In the House, a public hearing can be called by a committee chair or one-third of the members of a committee that is handling a specific bill (Rule 61). Therefore, even if a committee chair isn’t interested in a hearing, if we can convince a third (usually seven) of the members of that committee, a hearing can be held.
In the Senate, a committee chair or one-half of the membership of a committee can call a public hearing (Rule 39). On the Senate side, public hearings tend to be less frequent and, although specific rules exist, less formal. Hearings usually take place at the Capitol building in Des Moines.
Public hearings influence legislators. It is essential that we attend them and make effective statements about our issues. Here are some tips:
- Arrange To Speak In Advance
- Prepare Your Written Comments
- Plan What You Will Say
- Sample Speech Before A Hearing
- When The Hearing Date Arrives
Arrange To Speak In Advance
In most cases, you are required to call ahead in order to speak at a hearing. This is usually handled by the committee chair or the Legislative Information Office. All you have to do is call the appropriate office and ask to be placed on the schedule. In the rare case when you do not have to call ahead, plan to arrive early and sign in to make sure your voice will be heard.
Prepare Your Written Comments
You will have an opportunity to speak at the hearing; you will also be able to submit written documents. You probably won’t have time to say everything you want to say, but you can submit extra comments in writing. Write up your key concerns and supporting evidence. You may wish to include newspaper articles and other supporting documents. Bring a few extra copies along to share with allies, and one copy to submit when you are called to speak.
Plan What You Will Say
Pull the key ideas you want to get across from your written comments. Most hearings have time limits for each speaker, often only three to five minutes, so it’s important to say your main points in that short time. Consider jotting an outline on several index cards; it will keep you from reading your remarks word for word. It is wise to rehearse your comments several times, at least once for a friendly audience. Ask if you are getting across your important points. Personal stories with an emotional impact make the best testimony. Time your remarks to be sure you are within the time limit. It’s easy to get nervous when you are called on to speak, so make sure you feel well prepared.
Try to coordinate in advance of the hearing with other people who share your concerns, planning who will emphasize which points during testimony. It does not help your cause if you and a dozen other people repeat essentially the same points over and over.
Sample Speech Before A Hearing
- Address the officials in attendance….
“Thank you Chairperson ____________, committee members, Senators, Representatives, and interested citizens for the opportunity to speak to you about Senate/House File #_________________.”
- Legitimize yourself….
“I am representing _____________ today, a ____________ group with __________ members in Iowa. Our group is concerned about Senate/House File #_________________ because it affects me/our members by … (short description of impact).
- State your position clearly….
I am opposed to/in favor of Senate/House File #_________________ because: (point one); (point two); (point three); …
- Explain your main points….
Point one: (explain) … Point two: (explain) … Point three: (explain) … This is the body of your speech, providing the substance and facts to back your concerns. Keep your comments short, simple, and to the point. Remember that you can always expand your comments in the written statement you will submit. If you have a personal story to tell about the issue, this is the time to tell it.
- Reiterate your main points….I am opposed to/in favor of Senate/House File #_________________ because of (point one), (point two), and (point three).
- Closing remarks….
You may wish to close with a relevant quotation that backs your viewpoint, or a simple thank you. Urge legislators to consider your remarks when deciding their position on the bill.
When The Hearing Date Arrives
Be sure to allow enough travel time. Plan to arrive a little before the scheduled hearing time. Make sure you have your notes and written comments ready. Sign in when you arrive at the room where the hearing will be held. Lastly, take a deep breath before you speak and remember that every time we speak out about the issues that affect our lives, we are one step closer to making social change happen.
Together, we are the majority!