Committee attorneys: keeping legislators informed

Delegates receive input from a staff attorney. Photo by Perry Bennett, WV Legislative Photographer.

BY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB

Have you ever wondered how legislators make informed decisions about bills that they are reviewing, even when they may not be familiar about the subject matter?

While our legislators are often experts in one or more subject areas, no one can be an expert on everything. We’ve shared previously about how you can help educate your Legislator on issues that you care about. Additionally, Legislators often rely on committee attorneys to help them out.

Each committee in both the House and the Senate have at least one attorney assigned to assist committee members. Here’s how they do that:

  • Explain how each bill would change or add to the state code and what that would look like in practice
  • Answer questions that Senators or Delegates have about the function of a bill, any amendments to the bill, and about the state code in general
  • Listen to Senators or Delegates as they voice concerns and draft amendments that address their concerns if directed to do so
  • Provide their opinion about the efficacy of a bill if asked to do so

 

This isn’t the only job that committee attorneys have, but this is one way in which they have an incredible amount of input into this piece of the legislative process.

If they understand legislators’ questions correctly and are able to answer in a way that they understand, then the legislators can make decisions about whether to amend, pass, or block a bill with the best information possible. If the attorney misunderstands a legislator’s question or doesn’t know the answer, legislators may make decisions with incomplete or incorrect information.

This played out in a committee meeting I attended recently. A bill was being discussed and legislators were unsure how the bill would function in relation to the State Code. They asked the attorney to describe how that section of code currently functions, but he wasn’t able to do so. Legislators were left to make their best guess about what the bill would do if enacted.

This isn’t ideal, but it does make sense. When I did some digging on my own, I found that the bill in question impacts two separate pieces of the State Code, rather than the one that was listed. It took me about an hour to track down the chapter in which the second piece of code was located – no small task.

For every instance in which attorneys aren’t able to provide an answer to these questions, there are many more in which they do, making sure that legislators have the information they need to make informed decisions about each bill that they have to review.

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