All of the official proceedings of the Maryland General Assembly — committee hearings, voting sessions, floor debates and so on — are open to the public. Anyone who cares to can watch as their senators and delegates discuss and vote on any of the thousands of pieces of legislation that move through the General Assembly every year. Anyone, that is, who happens to be in Annapolis.
The options for those who can't hang around the State House and the House and Senate office buildings have gotten better in recent years, but they're still far from ideal. The audio of House and Senate floor sessions has long been live-streamed over the Internet, but since the enforced politesse of legislative deliberations generally prohibits anyone from referring to another lawmaker by name during a debate, it's difficult to know who's talking unless you happen to have an exceptional ear for voices and/or knowledge of just whom Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is referring to when he calls on "the good senator from the mother county."
The Senate approved a rules change Tuesday that represents a modest step forward in the cause of transparency. It codified the practice of live-streaming the audio of Senate committee hearings and made clear that committee chairmen could broadcast voting sessions at their discretion. But Del. Michael J. Hough, a Western Maryland Republican, has proposed a more comprehensive solution: requiring that video of all floor debates, committee hearings and voting sessions be broadcast and archived on the Internet.
The House has live-streamed video of committee hearings since moving into a new office building several years ago, and the archives are all available by committee and date. Generally, though, voting sessions are not broadcast or archived. The Senate office building was constructed earlier and does not have video cameras built into the hearing rooms, but it has live-streamed and archived audio of its hearings for several years — though, again, not typically voting sessions.
Committee votes comprise many of the most important decisions during any General Assembly session, as most bills that receive favorable committee votes pass, and those that get unfavorable votes fail, almost without exception. The legislature took an important step toward transparency in that regard in 2012 when it started posting committee voting sheets on the Internet. If you're interested in a particular bill, you can find out after the fact how lawmakers in the appropriate committees voted.
But that still leaves out a lot of information. You may know who voted which way but not why, nor will you necessarily know what amendments were considered or who proposed them.
Last year, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Brian Frosh made what appears to be an unprecedented decision to broadcast the voting session for Gov. Martin O'Malley's gun control legislation. He said he did so because of the intense interest in the bill — well more than 1,000 people showed up to testify — and a belief that on such an important and controversial piece of legislation, the public ought to be able to know what the debate was like. Senator Frosh said the experience was a positive one and that he would consider doing it again on a case-by-case basis.
Opponents of the idea of broadcasting voting sessions worry that doing so will inhibit the free flow of discussion that is necessary for the legislative process, either because lawmakers will start engaging in grandstanding or because they will become reticent out of fear that an opponent will later take their words out of context. But if broadcasting the proceedings didn't stifle the conversation on something so controversial as the gun control bill, what makes lawmakers think it would cause a problem for more pedestrian legislation?
Delegate Hough's bill calls for live-streaming all of the legislature's proceedings starting on Oct. 1, but given the need to upgrade the technology in the House and Senate chambers and the Senate office building, it may take longer than that. It will also require some investment. How much is not yet clear, but the cost would certainly be small compared to the benefit.
Mr. Hough has 24 co-sponsors for the bill, but they are all Republicans — generally not a good sign for legislation in the Democrat-dominated General Assembly. But transparency should not be a partisan issue. Lawmakers of both parties who are about to face the voters again should be proud to say they supported this bill. And if it fails, it should be on the agenda of every candidate for governor this year.
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