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How to be a great committee chair: the best committee chairs set a tone of efficiency, civility, consistency and openness.

When you walk into a legislative committee meeting, you usually get an instant sense of the committee leader. Top-notch committee chairs set a tone for their committees, a balance of businesslike competence with civility and friendliness. The committee moves through the agenda efficiently, yet the committee members patiently listen to witnesses. Members don't drift off, engage in side conversations with their colleagues, or gaze into their laptops. A good committee chair is often so smooth that you don't particularly notice what he or she is doing, but you do recognize when the committee has done its work well. The following are some keys to success.


Pre-meeting work is critical, and an important piece of that is keeping people in the loop. Set up a checklist to make sure you are giving key leaders, staff, members, interest groups and the media the information they need when they need it. "When I became a committee chair," says Representative Denise Merrill of Connecticut, "I didn't realize the magnitude of work involved in organizing, planning and balancing the interests of committee members." Creating a checklist helps manage the job.


Committees need clear direction to do the important work of improving good bills and killing bad ones. "I have a Day One speech," says Senator Judy Lee of North Dakota. "We all have to work together to get through the enormous amount of work we have to do. We are going to enjoy and appreciate the input we get from committee members, lobbyists, staff, agency people and citizens. Tough questions are OK, but they must be presented in a courteous and civil manner."


"Knowledge earns you respect faster than anything else," says Representative Merrill. Committee chairs earn the respect of their peers and the public when they know the rules, subject matter and political implications. Sometimes, you just have to "study up" to get the knowledge you need to lead the committee.


Every legislature gets some bills that sound wonderful but just aren't feasible or a priority. The temptation is always there to pass it in committee and let the entire legislative body or the other house make the hard choice when it comes up for a full vote. This isn't always a good idea. Sometimes a committee passes out a bill thinking it will be defeated or tabled later, only to find it just sails through the legislature, says Representative Roy Cohee of Wyoming. The entire process, he says, depends on committees "focusing on quality work products." Chairs have to make the tough decisions and not waste the time of other legislators.


It is easy in the crush of session just to react to the mass of bills that are coming through your committee. But really good committee chairs never lose sight of the bigger picture. Representative Merrill suggests using organizational and informational committee meetings at the start of the legislative session to set the stage for the key areas you think need to be addressed.


Although a chair has to focus primarily on the bills in his or her committee, there needs to be good communication and teamwork across committees. Most critical of all, policy and budget committees need to be in sync with each other. Senator Lee notes that her human resources committee has to give the appropriations committee a true picture of the priorities in its program areas. Chairs need to participate in these important meetings and constantly think about how their committee work affects others in the legislative process.


Representative Cohee notes that testifying for the first time can be a scary event for citizens. "I try to encourage them beforehand, let them know it won't be a life-threatening experience." Senator Lee notes that she often schedules bills taking into account that people may be driving great distances to testify. Starting on time, listing realistic times when bills will be heard and setting a welcoming tone are important. Finally, when students visit the committee room, Senator Lee takes a moment to tell them about the committee's responsibilities and subject matter so they have a better understanding of what is going on.


Above all, be fair. "Be fair to the people testifying, be fair to the people on your committee," says Representative Merrill. "If you're perceived as being fair, rarely will people get upset with you." Representative Rick Miera of New Mexico sees honesty, openness and consistency all combining to build the trust you need to be an effective chair. It takes a real dedication to the process and willingness to hear viewpoints you may not agree with.


Chairs have to find the right balance with committee members. They need to allow members to ask questions to better understand bills, but chairs must keep their colleagues from harassing witnesses. This is especially true when agency personnel come to testify and one of the committee members has a "bone to pick" with the agency. Channel all questions and testimony through the chair, so that you can ensure that civility prevails. Representative Miera says to "remember to use your vice chair in these situations." The vice chair can go over to the dominating member and privately deliver the message that the chair wants the member to tone it down.


When legislators first become committee chairs, the tasks may seem overwhelming. "Be confident," says Senator Lee. "Every life experience is practice for what comes later in life. We have education and work, family and volunteer experience, all of which is diverse and interesting and will help us as committee chairs." Representative Cohee urges chairs to "emulate others, but with your own characteristics." You do learn from others, but ultimately trust your own instincts and use your own strengths.

Bruce Fuestel handles legislator and staff training for NCSL.
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Title Annotation:TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Author:Feustel, Bruce
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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