General Assembly Journal - Part 15
The Mechanics of the Floor March 24, 2003
It dawns on me that I've told you a little about the how things work, but not the real nitty-gritty. I've tried to help you imagine what it's like to be down here, but I haven't really explained the floor procedure and process. I almost waited too long, since with luck and hard work, we'll be out of here at midnight on April 7th.
So here's how it works.
A legislator with a brilliant idea meets with a bill drafter. The bill drafter puts the bill in the proper form and sends it back to the legislator. The legislator, if they want co-sponsors, travels through the House office building seeking other legislators to sign the "blueback", which is the cover sheet that is attached to the draft bill. Each blueback includes the names of all 141 delegates, with a small space for their initials. The logic is that if you can get high profile co-sponsors, it improves the chances for your bill. This is especially important if the bill is going to a committee where the delegate sponsor has little or no standing. Once the blueback is complete, the legislator makes six copies of the draft bill and delivers them to the Clerk's Office.
The Mary Monahan, the chief clerk, has an office just off the main hallway in the State House. Mary and her staff are a tremendous help to the legislators, making the introduction of a bill much easier.
Once introduced, the bill is "read over the desk". All this means is that the Speaker introduces the bill and one of the clerk's staff reads the bill aloud from the dais. It is then assigned to the appropriate standing committee. Since this part of the regular floor procedure is mostly ceremonial, this is when the delegates are talking, joking, and doing just about everything other than paying attention.
This is referred to as First Reader. The bill is then sent to committee. The committee is where the real work of the General Assembly takes place. Each bill is scheduled for a public hearing, and the opponents and proponents are afforded the opportunity to attend and make their comments. This is also when the lobbyists kick in. I've talked about the process of legislative advocacy before, so I'll assume you've read them and save the repetition.
Once the committee has completed the hearing process, the bill is sent back to the clerk's office. Again it appears on the calendar, this time as a Second Reader. This is the time that any legislator can offer amendments on the floor.
Controversial bills usually send a Second Reader into an extended discussion, with the committee chair standing by their desk attempting to answer detailed questions from other members.
Once the amendments are either adopted or rejected (all by voice vote), the bill is ordered printed for Third Reader. Third Reader is the final vote, and all members have the opportunity to take the floor to debate a bill before the vote is taken. Once the call goes out for a vote, each member can take two minutes to explain their vote. Some veterans use this an opportunity to sway others to change their votes. For the most part, this is really just a chance to vent, since I've rarely seen members be so eloquent as to convince others to change.
You might ask how a delegate keeps track of all of this stuff. In the pre-digital age, delegates had small binders under their desks containing paper copies of every bill, along with all of the amendments, fiscal notes (the cost estimates of the bill), and committee reports. In fact, many members still use these books.
Since last session, the House has given every member a Gateway Pentium III laptop. In addition to all of the normal PC office applications, this laptop is loaded with a few specific and very helpful programs for a delegate.
The first program I've mentioned previously. It's called Commence, and it is a relational database combining the voter list with a mail merge, label maker, and contact tracker.
The other program is one that I use everyday. It is called the Floor System, and it is basically all of the information in the previously mentioned binders, but in an interactive format. It allows a delegate to track a bill, read the text, make in-context notes, read the fiscal note, read any amendments and view the votes cast on a bill.
I feel like I couldn't do without my laptop. The fear is that the system could go down, preventing me from seeing the floor information. The good news is that both Delegate Paul Stull and Delegate Don Elliott, both representing parts of Frederick County and seated close to me on the floor, use the binder instead of the laptop.
Since this was a pretty technical entry, I promise to make the next version a juicy page-turner (to the extent I can).