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Operational Reform of the District of Columbia Council:
A Fix-It-Yourself Manual
DC Appleseed Center Report
February 1999




Dorothy Brizill
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Public hearings are an important element of the legislative process. When properly structured, public hearings can significantly enhance the quality of legislation and help the citizenry play a constructive role in their own governance. "In the hands of motivated individuals and mobilized groups, these [hearings] have been effectively used. They have transformed the local level into a much more open and accessible context than are state and federal government processes for the typical citizen."79

Ideally, a well-run public hearing process can provide numerous benefits, including:

  • improving Council members' understanding of the problems addressed by, and the effects of, specific proposals;
  • increasing the Council's access to expert advice and technical data;
  • educating the public about issues and the reasons for policy decisions;
  • enhancing citizen participation in government;
  • and increasing public respect for government.

If not carefully designed, however, public hearings may have little value or even prove, on balance, to be counterproductive; poorly run hearings erode the public's confidence in, and lower its expectations of, a legislative body.80

DC Appleseed's research suggests that the D.C. Council's hearings have some value and enormous potential, but need significant improvement. The long time that witnesses must wait to testify, the apparent disorganization of the public hearing process, the lack of information describing and explaining the issues being addressed, and the lack of preparation by both Council members and executive-branch witnesses gives the public the impression that the Council does not respect the public or the legislative process. Moreover, there is the perception that private meetings between Council members and lobbyists have a greater impact than does public hearing testimony, and that hearings often do not have a substantive effect on legislation. In light of the wealth of expertise and ideas possessed by the citizens of the District who are eager to testify, this is a sad result. After a brief section that describes the procedural rules governing public hearings, DC Appleseed offers recommendations. for improving the legislative public hearing process.81

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A. Public Hearings and Roundtables

The Council Rules do not require that a hearing be held for all legislation, but rather that the Council (either as a body or through a committee) "shall hold a hearing when required by law and may hold a hearing on any matter relating to the affairs of the District."83 Either the Chair of the Council, the Council itself, or a committee chair may call a hearing.84 Because most hearings are conducted by committees, this chapter generally discusses committee hearings. In cases where full Council hearings are substantially different, the differences are noted.

According to Council Rules, unless a hearing is required by law or regulation, committees may hold either a hearing or a "roundtable" on any matter within their jurisdiction.85 The Council's Rules establish only a single difference between roundtables and hearings: for roundtables, the Council need not provide notice to the public.86 Although the precise number of hearings conducted by the Council and its committees is not known, some public session to receive public comment either a hearing or a roundtable is held on most pieces of standard legislation. Committees frequently hold roundtables in place of public hearings.

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B. The Quorum Requirement

The Rules provide that one member of the Council (or a committee) must be present for hearings held by the Council or a committee.87 This minimal requirement is usually observed. at least at the start of a hearing, when the chair of the committee is generally in attendance. However, a majority of committee members is rarely present for an entire hearing, although Council members will sometimes assign staff to monitor hearings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, occasionally, witnesses will testify without any Council member present.

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C. Timing and Means of Notice

Council Rules require that 15 days' notice be provided to the public before the Council or one of its committees conducts a legislative hearing.88 Notice of the time, date, and subject of the hearing must be published in the D. C. Register, which is published weekly. Less than 15 days' notice of a hearing is permissible if the Council has "good cause," as explained in a statement published with the notice.89 Finally, the Rules require the Secretary to provide notice of all public hearings to each member of the Council.90

In addition to the D. C. Register, notice that a public hearing will be held generally appears in a weekly Council Calendar.91 Some committees also mail notice to certain interested parties, and District cable television provides notice of hearings sporadically. The Council's web site does not provide notice of public hearings.

Notwithstanding the requirement for 15 days' notice, those interviewed by DC Appleseed's Project Team indicated that the Council sometimes provides substantially less notice. While the D. C. Register is generally viewed as a good resource, the Council Calendar is not, because it often arrives in the mail only a few days before a hearing takes place. Individual mailings are not a reliable source for many members of the public because each committee maintains its own mailing list, and the breadth of distribution varies substantially among committees.

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D. Documents Available Before the Hearing

The Council rarely provides enough information prior to a public hearing to enable the public to understand the subject matter of a bill, let alone its impact. The title of bill provided in the notice does not always reflect the intent of the bill. Descriptions and analyses are rarely provided at the time of notice, and, if provided, are generally inadequate.

Copies of the bill to be considered at a hearing may be obtained in advance from the Office of Legislative Services ("OLS") in the Council Secretary's office. Although, in our interviews, OLS was often complimented as courteous and helpful, it was noted that OLS sometimes does not have a copy of the bill — either because the bill has not been provided to OLS by the staff of Council members or because OLS has run out of copies. OLS does not have the capacity to make additional copies of legislation at the time requested by members of the public.

Even if one can obtain a copy of the bill to be discussed at a hearing, the bill may be difficult to interpret. Amendments to existing law simply show the additions and deletions to (but do not include a copy of) the original act proposed to be amended. Absent a copy of the referenced act, or an explanation of the proposed changes, such a bill is inscrutable.

It is especially difficult to obtain copies of the budget before a budget hearing. We understand that even some Council members have had difficulty obtaining copies in the past.

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E. The Conduct of Public Hearings

The Council and committees typically commence hearings and roundtables during normal business hours at the Council's offices, presently located at Judiciary Square. Hearings held in the main Council chamber are televised on District cable television, while hearings in other rooms are not televised.

The Council's rules provide that any member of the public who contacts the relevant committee before the deadline set in the public notice shall be given the opportunity to testify at the committee's hearing.92 Under the rules, witnesses at hearings have the right to submit an opening statement for the record; the presiding member may permit the witness to read his or her opening statement at the hearing.93 Although witnesses must confine their testimony to the question under discussion,94 there is no germaneness requirement for questions or statements by Council members.

The Rules provide that each Council member receives up to ten minutes to question each witness until each member present has had an opportunity to ask questions, after which as many subsequent rounds of questioning as necessary can occur.95 In practice, the time for questioning by Council members generally is not limited. The tendency for Council members to make long statements or engage in lengthy dialogues with witnesses during questioning appears to be greater for hearings that are televised on District cable television, according to those interviewed by DC Appleseed's Project Team. Since there is no germaneness constraint, Council members sometimes stray from the subject matter of a hearing. For example, during a legislative hearing, members may ask agency witnesses questions that are proper for an oversight hearing, but do not relate to the legislation at issue.

At some hearings, no time limits are imposed on witnesses. More commonly, Council members announce time limits only at the beginning of a hearing. A constant theme among the interviewees and focus group participants, however, is that the time limits are not uniformly enforced.

There is no mechanical system of lights or bells to keep time and to notify witnesses and Council members when time has expired. When time limits are kept, the limits are monitored and enforced by the presiding officer of the meeting, generally the committee chair.

Executive-branch witnesses typically testify at the beginning of a hearing and, in some cases, their testimony lasts for hours. Some interviewees surmise that this is caused by the failure of government witnesses to prepare adequately. Similarly, proponents of a bill favored by the chair are often permitted to speak for a long time. Later in the hearing, when members of the general public are speaking, time limits are more routinely enforced.

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F. Preservation of a Hearing Record

The Council's summaries of public hearings found in legislative reports are of uneven quality. Accordingly, members of the public must often rely on audio recordings to research a public hearing record. Those recordings often fail to capture certain voices and frequently do not reflect the identity of the parties speaking. The Council does not prepare transcripts or detailed minutes of the hearings, although committee reports generally contain an abbreviated description of what was said at legislative hearings.96 Moreover, because the Council does not aggregate information concerning its hearings, DC Appleseed has been unable to determine the number of hearings held during any recent Council Period.

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DC Appleseed offers below a series of recommendations that, together, provide a coherent plan for improving public hearings held by the Council and its committees. While each recommendation stands on its own and will independently have a beneficial effect, the recommendations have synergistic effects, as well. The adoption of one recommendation may make it easier to adopt another, and may enhance the favorable impact of the other as well. For example, the various reforms to streamline and shorten hearings will make increasing the quorum requirement less onerous. Each change is important and stands on its own merits, but collectively they make even more sense. These recommendations cover six main issues: (1) hearing requirements; (2) notice of hearings; (3) materials available at the time of notice; (4) dialogue between Council members and witnesses; (5) the length and organization of hearings; and (6) the ability of those not present at a hearing to understand the proceedings.

A. Hearings — Not "Roundtables" — Should Be Held Before Enactment of Standard Legislation

1. Hold a Hearing Prior to Enacting Standard Legislation

As noted earlier, hearings are not required for most legislation enacted under the standard legislative process. While Council members face time pressures and cannot attend an unlimited number of hearings, the public should have an opportunity to be heard before a bill is enacted into law. Accordingly, we recommend that the Council adopt a rule that standard legislation will not be enacted unless the public has had an opportunity to address proposed legislation at a public hearing.97 It is, of course, important that the D.C. Council provide an opportunity for a hearing on standard legislation if a bill was first enacted on an emergency basis, because the bill likely did not receive sufficient consideration when enacted under the pressure of emergency circumstances.

DC Appleseed's recommendation may increase modestly the number of hearings held by the Council and its committees. To reduce the time burden on Council members, groups of hearings for which no witnesses sign up to testify by close of business the day before the hearing should be consolidated and conducted at a pro forma hearing by a hearing officer. Thus, for each enacted bill, the Council need not hold a formal hearing but need only provide the opportunity for a hearing.98 This will require planning in advance of setting and publishing a notice of hearing.

Because there will nonetheless likely be a greater number of hearings, it is even more important for the Council to adopt the measures recommended later in this section to streamline the hearing process and to ensure that the time utilized is as productive as possible. If these measures are adopted, the total amount of time dedicated to the public hearing process may actually decrease.

98. Moreover, for those bills about which only a few witnesses will testify, the Council should try to group several together into a single hearing at which related bills can be considered. This will also reduce the number of days on which hearings are held.

99. of course, the Council could hold informal sessions similar to current roundtables to gather information and viewpoints in developing legislation. These sessions should not, however, substitute for public hearings, as roundtables now do.

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2. Abolish Roundtables

As noted above, the only apparent difference between a roundtable and a public hearing is that no public notice is required for roundtables. DC Appleseed recommends abolishing the use of roundtables.99 The commentary regarding roundtables in the DC Appleseed Project Team's interviews and focus group was negative. Virtually every interviewee expressed the opinion that roundtables are generally used by the Council when it has run behind schedule and, thus, has no time to provide the notice required for a public hearing. Many interviewees stated that the option of holding roundtables encourages the Council to be less disciplined in providing notice to the public and less organized in its preparation for public hearings. Because of shortened notice, roundtables preclude much of the public from participating meaningfully, if at all.

The Council need not rely on roundtables to expedite legislation. If there is a legitimate need for unusual speed, the Council should hold a hearing with as little as two working days' notice, using the procedures proposed on the next page of this report. If there is such exigency that two working days' notice is not possible, the Council could pass the bill on an emergency basis, in which case DC Appleseed's proposed requirement for a hearing would not apply. Moreover, while roundtables tend to be less formal than public hearings, nothing prevents hearings from being structured in a similar way. Indeed, in the proper circumstances, a less formal public hearing may be beneficial.

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B. Notice to the Public Should Be Timely and Provided Through Additional Means

1. Strengthen and Comply with Notice Requirements

The requirement of 15 days' notice found in the Council's Rules should be strictly observed. By occasionally providing less notice than is required by the Rules and by using roundtables to avoid providing any notice at all, the Council sends a message to the public that it does not value public participation. Further, short notice prevents the Council from receiving the depth and quality of information that it otherwise would receive at public hearings, as witnesses may be unable to prepare comprehensive testimony during an abbreviated notice period.

The other 11 jurisdictions surveyed by DC Appleseed's Project Team tend to require shorter periods of notice than does the D.C. Council: four require one to three days' notice while five others require 10 to 14 days. The DC Appleseed Project Team seriously considered whether the D.C. Council's current 15 calendar day requirement could safely be reduced in line with the practices of these jurisdictions, but concluded that 15 days is not excessive. Indeed, the current notice period has the advantage of allowing time for notice to percolate through a community; no matter how accessible notice is to the public, some citizens will miss it and find out about the hearing only from neighbors or community groups. In addition, adequate time must be available between the receipt of notice and the hearing date for the individuals and organizations to study the matter being considered, develop a position, and prepare testimony — a tall order even for 15 days.

The Council should also strengthen its rules for holding hearings with less than the required 15 days' notice. Specifically, in addition to the provision in Council Rule 424 which provides that hearings held with less than 15 days' notice must be accompanied by a statement of good cause for shortening the notice, the Council should establish a requirement that no less than two working days' notice be provided before any pubic hearing. The requirement that good cause be articulated with the notice is a good one: it should provide a discipline to committee chairs, discouraging them from shortening the notice period.

Given the time needed for the public to prepare, hearings should not be held less than two working days after notice is provided.100 We recognize that if only two working days are available, some fortes of notice, described above — such as inclusion in the Council Calendar — may not be practicable. In these cases, at a minimum, the notice should be provided on the web site, at a standard place at the Council Chambers, via e-mail, and via fax to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. All required materials should be placed at the Council's information office for the full period of the notice.

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2. Improve Methods for Providing Notice

The Council currently relies on the D. C. Register, ordinary mailings, and the Council Calendar as the primary source of notice of hearings. The Register is not readily accessible, and many citizens, including most members of the focus group, are unaware of its existence. Moreover, while the Council Calendar and mailings have some value, they are not useful to many citizens. As indicated in the chart below, other cities surveyed by the DC Appleseed Project Team use several additional methods to provide public notice.

Chart, Methods to Provide Hearing Notice

The Council should establish a comprehensive citizen outreach strategy that not only improves methods for providing notice of hearings, but considers additional ways of increasing public awareness of, and involvement in, Council activities. By establishing a larger central public information staff as recommended in Chapter 1, the Council will have the resources to develop such a strategy. As part of its strategy, the Council's public information office should establish the following four additional methods of providing public notice of scheduled hearings.

a) Newspapers and District Cable Television

The Council should provide notice of public hearings in newspapers of general circulation to permit all citizens to receive notice and have the opportunity to participate in the hearing process. The two major newspapers in the District already provide notice of Congressional activities. In fact, nine of the 11 other jurisdictions surveyed for this report provide notice of public hearings in local newspapers.101

Similar consideration suggests that notice of every hearing should be provided regularly on District cable television. Although many District residents do not subscribe to cable, among those who do and are interested in District affairs, many watch District cable television. All six focus group members who subscribe watch Council activities on District cable television.

b) Web Site

All hearing notices should be placed on the Council's web site. Web site notice is perhaps the ideal method of notice for those who have access because the web (1) is virtually instantaneous (unlike the D. C. Register and Council Calendar that must travel through the mail), (2) permits the low cost dissemination of extra information — such as the full text of the bill — that previously could be obtained (if at all) only from OLS or Council staff, and (3) reduces Council costs and time because citizens who want a copy of a bill or other information may simply print it from their computers. Such notice received a ringing endorsement from the focus group and a number of the other interviewees. Notice of public hearings is provided on the web by four of the 11 other councils surveyed by the DC Appleseed Project Team.

The web site should also contain the full text of all proposed legislation, including relevant sections that are to be amended or otherwise referenced therein. The full text of the D.C. Code should also be placed on the web and links should be provided from the text of proposed legislation to the relevant sections of the code. Because not all District residents have access to a computer, web-based notice should be used as a supplement to, nor a substitute for,other forms of notice.

c) E-mail

Arguments similar to those made above for web site notice regarding efficiency and increased public access also support the idea that the Council should provide notice via e- mail.102 Because many committees already keep lists of people to whom they send notice by regular mail, keeping a list of e-mail addresses should not add a substantial burden.

d) Recorded Telephone Message

The Council should establish a user-friendly telephone information line that the public can call to access a schedule of upcoming hearings and meetings. The existence of this information line should be widely publicized.

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C. Materials Available at the Time of Notice Should Include Better Information to Allow the Public to Participate Meaningfully

A constant theme that emerged in interviews and discussions with the focus group is that, even if the notice of a hearing complies with the Council Rules, information available at the time of notice often is inadequate. At the outset, witnesses are not provided information orally or in written form concerning how to prepare for a hearing, what to expect when they arrive at the hearing, or how to get more information about the subject matter to be addressed. Indeed, many members of the focus group — all of whom have testified before the Council — were unaware that OLS exists. Moreover, the topic of the hearing and the nature of the legislation to be discussed are not sufficiently clear and detailed in the notice itself to permit witnesses to prepare well considered statements. As a result, testimony is often limited to broad themes, rather than to the substance of the bill under examination.

Information about the hearing process should be made generally available. For example, usual procedures could be described in a pamphlet, which would be distributed to witnesses at each hearing and would be available at public libraries, at the Council's public information office, and on the Council's web site. This pamphlet would not have to be modified for individual hearings.

The Council could also take several steps toward fostering greater public understanding of proposed legislation and, thereby, reduce confusion during debate at public hearings and legislative sessions. First, the content of the notice should be improved by requiring that the title of the hearing clearly state the topic of the legislation to be discussed. Additionally, the full text of each bill should uniformly be available and accessible at the time notice of a hearing is first given. In some cases, however, even the full text is not enough for the public to discern the impact of the legislation. Because few pieces of legislation create an entirely new law, bills frequently cite a section or subsection of existing law and state that it is either repealed or "amended to read as follows." The result is that legislative amendments, on their own, are difficult to follow. To resolve this problem, the Council should include with the bill copies of each section of existing law that will be amended by the bill.103 With this information, Council members and the public alike would be better able to assess the impact of proposed amendments because they could immediately compare the current law with the proposed revision.

Moreover, to provide members of the general public adequate information to participate meaningfully, we recommend that, when notice is first provided, a "plain language" summary of the bill be made publicly available indicating the problem that gave rise to the bill and how the bill aims to resolve that problem.104 When proposed legislation is particularly complex, providing only the text of existing sections of law affected by a proposal will not adequately describe a bill. In those circumstances, a plain language summary is critical. Additionally, by adopting DC Appleseed's recommendation in Chapter 3 that the Council prepare and make publicly available before a hearing a fiscal impact statement for all legislative proposals, the public will receive additional information central to understanding each proposal.

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D. The Opportunity for Constructive Dialogue Between Council Members and the Public Should Be Increased

1. Require a Quorum of Two Council Members to Commence a Hearing and a Quorum of One for a Hearing to Continue

Many of those interviewed by the DC Appleseed Project Team and members of the focus group stated that the lack of attendance by Council members is one of the most important problems with public hearings, noting that it is disheartening to testify to a single Council member or, even worse, to video cameras with not even one Council member present. The lack of attendance at hearings reinforces the current public perception that public testimony does not matter and that committee hearings are simply an empty exercise. The interviewees noted that it is especially disturbing to see Council members walk out at the conclusion of executive-branch testimony, demonstrating a lack of interest in public testimony. Focus group members mentioned that the Council members rarely appear to be in an information-gathering mode at hearings, having made up their minds before the start of the hearing. Indeed, the information sharing function of public hearings can hardly succeed if the Council is not present and interested in receiving the information.

Uneven attendance at hearings may also result in members being less informed. Although the practice of leaving staff at the hearings may allow some information to be conveyed to members, that practice cannot replace the lost dialogue between Council members and the public. If Council members are simply receiving reports of the hearing and not questioning witnesses, then written testimony would suffice, and the public's time should not be wasted with an often inconvenient and time-consuming public meeting.

The attendance problem at the Council has a simple solution suggested by the practices of other jurisdictions: a more rigorous quorum requirement. In the ideal world, the full committee would be present throughout every hearing. DC Appleseed recognizes that the pressures on Council members' time do not permit attendance at all hearings, nor can Council members remain for the duration of every hearing they attend. Indeed, if the Council adopts DC Appleseed's recommendation that an opportunity for hearing be required for all standard legislation, the number of hearings will likely increase. As a result, we recommend only a modest increase in the quorum requirement from one to two of five committee members to begin a hearing. Considering that four jurisdictions surveyed by DC Appleseed require that a majority of the body be present, we believe that the two-person requirement is modest and appropriate.105

We also recommend that the quorum apply only to hearings for which witnesses have signed up in advance. Other hearings may be conducted by a hearing officer, who can be a member of the Council's staff. This should reduce the burden associated with an increased quorum requirement.

The attendance problems discussed above will not be solved if two Council members attend initially and then leave before most citizens testify. To ensure that citizens never feel they are testifying solely "to cameras," we recommend that the Council explicitly clarify that at least one Council member be present throughout the hearing.

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2. Lower The Dais to Promote Dialogue

Citizens sometimes feel intimidated by the high dais in the Council chambers. The physical removal of members from the public sends the wrong message about the relative importance of the Council and its constituents. DC Appleseed recommends that the dais be lowered to the same level as (or a lower level than) the public. This recommendation is consistent with suggestions made by scholars who have examined the configuration of council chambers nationally. Specifically, scholars concur that formal meeting chambers should be configured so that there is "a balancing between eye levels of the public and council members" give the impression that the Council works with (and for) the public rather than having power over the public.106 By lowering the dais, the Council would promote freer dialogue between members and witnesses.

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E. Hearings Should Be Streamlined So that They Move More Rapidly, Are Less Confusing to the Public. and Are More Effective Tools for Discussion

1. Commence Hearings on Time

As described above, interviewees and focus group participants stated that committee hearings and the Council's legislative sessions often begin late, and no indication is given to those in attendance of why the meeting has been delayed or when it is expected to begin. As a result, members of the public may leave a hearing room before they have a chance to testify, and may choose not to testify at subsequent hearings. In order to encourage participation by members of the public — many of whom have taken off from work or otherwise disrupted their day to testify — the presiding officer of a hearing must make every attempt to begin on time, and, if there is a delay or interruption, to keep everyone informed of the reason and provide an estimate of when the hearing will begin or resume.

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2. Manage Witness Testimony More Effectively

The lack of discipline sometimes exhibited at Council and provide all estimate or Council hearings results in lengthy delays, unfocused proceedings, and a poor public image of the Council as an organization.107 By instituting practices that foster better witness management and shorter hearing sessions, the Council can better fulfill the highest goals of a public hearing: meaningful public participation and enhanced understanding of issues by the Council.108

a) Time Limits

Time limits provide an ideal means of streamlining hearings. They also force witnesses and Council members to focus on the issues at hand and to avoid grandstanding and diverging from the topic. When employed properly, time limits prevent a few speakers from dominating the hearing and, thereby, foster meaningful participation by a greater number of witnesses. Time limits also permit Council staff and members of the public to estimate reliably how long a hearing will run and when a witness might speak. Not surprisingly, eight of the 11 other jurisdictions we surveyed use time limits of some sort, and four report that the limits are always strictly enforced.

As previously noted, we have been told that many Council committee chairs use time limits, but that limits are rarely applied uniformly. A number of interviewees expressed concern that time limits are currently used only to limit the speaking time of opponents of a measure, but that speakers who favor the measure are granted unlimited time to speak. This is seen to denigrate the public and the value of its contribution. Thus, the Council must ensure that time limits are uniformly applied to all witnesses. regardless of their position on an issue or place on the witness list.109

Limiting the time taken by executive witnesses offers a separate challenge. A number of interviewees and members of the focus group noted that, while executive testimony is valuable, it is invariably too lengthy and may consist of no more than a self-serving political statement rather than an informative response to the issue being addressed at the hearing. We propose that the time for executive testimony be limited and that executive testimony be provided to all committee members in written form at least one work day prior to public hearings. There is simply no reason the public should wait many hours to testify; requiring written statements should allow committee members to prepare well enough to impose greater discipline on themselves when questioning executive branch witnesses.

To ensure the uniform enforcement of time limits, a mechanical system of enforcement should be developed. For example, an audible but low level chime and light signal could indicate to a witness when one minute is remaining and when time is up.110 To ensure that time limits are uniformly applied, timekeeping should be done by a central staff member not under the direct control of the chair.

The Council should also strengthen and strictly enforce its rule that limits the time period in which each Council member can question a witness before another Council member is given an opportunity to do so. Thus, for example, a Council member could be given only five minutes to ask questions and receive answers from a single witness before another Council member would be provided the same opportunity. While such limits currently exist on paper, they are not uniformly enforced. Enforcing this rule would encourage Council members to manage witnesses and ask focused questions.

DC Appleseed understands from its conversation with Denver's Council President in March 1998, that time limits are strictly enforced by Denver Council members who preside over public hearings. While members resisted the time limits when first enforced, they now generally comply, and, according to the Council President, appreciate the fact that hearings have been significantly streamlined.

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b) Germaneness Requirement

To shorten hearings and to keep them focused on their purpose, Council members should limit their questions to issues that are germane to the subject matter of the hearing. Some interviewees pointed to the fact that, all too often, Council members questioning an executive branch witness in a legislative hearing will take the opportunity to ask questions about general agency performance. These questions are appropriate for an oversight hearing, but, unless directly related to the legislation being considered, are not appropriate for a legislative hearing. Indeed, raising non-germane topics can distract attention from a hearing's purpose, and may lead the public to be misinformed because witnesses will be questioned about topics on which they are unprepared or unqualified to speak. It is unfair to force participants assembled to discuss a particular bill to endure and participate in an unrelated and unscheduled oversight function.

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3. Avoid Excessively Long Hearings; Hearings that Extend for Longer than Four Hours Should Generally be Continued on Another Day

It is no secret that Council hearings sometimes become marathons lasting long into the night. Such hearings are invariably grueling experiences for all participants and cannot be conducive to a lucid and thoughtful exchange of views. Such long hearings are anomalous in other jurisdictions. Only about 10% of the hearings conducted in the other 11 cities we studied lasted even over three hours, and only 3% over six hours. The Council should work to ensure that the District has no more than a correspondingly small percentage of long hearings.

The Council should try to limit each public hearing session to no more than four hours. Carefully managing witnesses, strictly observing time limits, and imposing germaneness requirements will allow the Council to streamline the hearing process. If it nonetheless appears that a hearing is likely to take substantially longer than four hours, the Council should plan to hold it over to another day. If a hearing unexpectedly is taking much more than four hours, it can be continued to another day.111

The Council should not limit the number of witnesses who may testify at a hearing. The goal of shortening hearings is important, but the DC Appleseed Project Team's research indicates that members of the public who want to participate in government and may be able to contribute important information are rarely excluded. Not a single jurisdiction surveyed limits the number of witnesses that may testify at a hearing. And those interviewed by the Project Team and members of the focus group overwhelmingly agreed that limiting the number of witnesses would be inappropriate. However, when it has a large number of witnesses and, thus, plans a multi-day hearing, the Council may wish to limit the number of witnesses that testify on a given day.

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F. The Council Should Improve the Ability of Members of the Public Not Present at a Hearing to Understand the Proceedings

1. Improve the Selection and Presentation of Hearings Broadcast on District Cable Television

At present, only the main Council chamber at Judiciary Square is equipped to allow events to be taped and televised on District cable television. As the Council renovates the Wilson Building, it should consider expanding the number of rooms with videotaping capabilities. Thus, simultaneous hearings could be broadcast at different times.

Until that capacity is created, when two or more hearings are scheduled at the same time, the Council should have a reasoned way to determine which hearing should be held in the main chambers and, therefore, televised. Currently, rooms are scheduled on a first-come-first served basis, and several interviewees stated that, particularly during the election season, Council members reserve the main chamber with an eye towards increasing their exposure through television. For example, a Council member who is especially eager to have a hearing televised, but does not know when it will be held, may reserve the Council chamber for many days in a row to ensure access. This practice deprives the public of seeing other hearings that otherwise would have been held in the empty Council chambers.

Moreover, the Council should improve the presentation of, and information provided during, the broadcast of hearings on District cable television. Interviewees and members of the focus group noted the poor sound quality of broadcasts and the lack of information that would allow the public to identify the date and subject matter of hearings and the identity of witnesses. The Council should correct these shortcomings promptly.

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2. Better Preserve the Hearing Record

Audio recordings are currently the primary method used to preserve records of hearings. Unfortunately, the devices now used to record testimony (particularly for hearings and roundtables not in the main Council chamber) do not capture much of what is said. It is imperative that the Council improve the quality of audio recordings by adding or repositioning microphones in hearing rooms to improve the quality of recordings. Even with such improvements, audio recordings will remain inadequate because a member of the public must still track and recognize voices in order to understand who is speaking. Accordingly, the Council should consider other methods of augmenting and preserving the hearing record.

Ideally, the Council would preserve a full written transcript of all hearings and make those transcripts available to the public. The availability of transcripts would avoid the need for minutes and audiovisual recordings, possibly saving substantial amounts of money. Whether transcripts are prepared should turn upon whether the cost of hiring a court reporter and storing the transcripts is prohibitive in light of these savings.

In addition, the Council should video-tape hearings if doing so is cost-effective. Videotapes of hearings would be much more useful than the current audio tapes, because they would permit speakers to be identified more easily. The Council should especially consider this option if creating and maintaining written transcripts proves too costly.

Of course, creating and storing a video library may also be costly. However, given the advent of digital technology, the Council now has a number of options for video-recording that would substantially reduce storage costs from previously available analog taping options. The Council should explore the possibilities, and consider implementing any available cost-effective method of creating and preserving better hearing records.

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With its new members and Chair, the District of Columbia Council has an opportunity to enhance the effectiveness, not only of the District government generally, but of its own work. By improving its internal operations, the Council can better fulfill its legislative role. Without improvement, the Council will not only have trouble doing its job, but will lack the credibility to reform operations elsewhere in the government.

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APPENDIX I: Methodology


In late 1997, the DC Appleseed Center assembled a 14-member Project Team to examine the internal operations of the District of Columbia Council. The Project Team (1) conducted the research described in this Appendix, (2) formulated its findings and recommendations, and (3) prepared this report.112 This final report was unanimously approved by the DC Appleseed Center Board of Directors.

The DC Appleseed Project Team began this undertaking by exploring whether research and analysis existed regarding the internal operations of either the D.C. Council or councils in other cities. DC Appleseed's Project Team found some research recently performed by the Seattle City Council regarding council operations in a number of cities,113 and only one study of D.C. Council operations — a 1988-1989 D.C. League of Women Voters examination of the Council's oversight of executive functions. Although informative, these efforts did not focus on the aspects of Council operations that are the subject of the research conducted for this report, and thus did not provide the necessary data from which to draw conclusions.114

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The D.C. Council has responsibilities of both a state and a city legislature. DC Appleseed's Project Team chose to compare the D.C. Council to other city councils — rather than state legislatures — because the D.C. Council's organization and operations (which are the subject of this report) are much more like those of other city councils than of state legislatures. Specifically, like other city councils, and unlike state legislatures, the D.C. Council has a relatively small number of members, meets year-round, is a unicameral legislature, and represents less than 800,000 people.

Virtually every state legislature meets less frequently than the D.C. Council. Only four state legislatures meet for more than eight months per year, and 70% meet for, on average, four months or less per year.115 Moreover, state legislatures typically serve much larger populations than does the D.C. Council: the median state population is 3.8 million; the mean 5.3 million. Only six states have populations of less than 800,000. and none of those has a legislature that meets for more than five months per year.116 Also, unlike the District, 49 states — all but Nebraska — have bicameral legislatures and more than 90% are relatively large legislative bodies, having more than 75 members.117

City councils, on the other hand, are organized very much like the D.C. Council. The legislatures in 11 cities identified by the DC Appleseed Project Team as most similar to the District have fewer than 30 members, meet for at least ten months each year,118 and are unicameral legislatures. Finally, the DC Appleseed Project Team had no trouble identifying city legislatures that serve a population similar in size to the District (567,000 in 1994). Each of the 11 cities examined has a population between 300,000 and 800,000 people. The charts at the end of the chapter detail the session length, type of legislature, and population served by the D.C. Council and other state and city legislatures.

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The DC Appleseed Project Team identified cities within the continental United Stated believed to be comparable to the District based on the following:

  • 1994 population between 300,000 and 800,000;
  • strong Mayor-Council form of government; and
  • a "non-traditionalistic" political culture and a "less conservative" political philosophy.119

All three criteria are met by 13 cities: Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Denver, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis. The legislatures in those cities were, therefore, chosen by the DC Appleseed Project Team as sources of comparison.

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The DC Appleseed Project Team moderated a meeting on March 9, 1998, with four council members (three of whom were at the time council chairs) from other cities to discuss how they plan, implement, and staff their legislative and public hearing processes. The meeting was scheduled by the National League of Cities ("NLC") during its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and was attended by representatives of councils from four cities: Denver; Seattle; Detroit; and Kansas City (MO). The Project Team invited each D.C. Council member to participate in the NLC meeting, but none attended.

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The Project Team collected original data through a 90-question survey focused on legislative operations. The survey was submitted to the D.C. Council and to legislatures in 13 other cities. The survey included background questions about the organization of the legislature as well as detailed questions about legislative processes, public hearings, budgets, and staffing. A copy of the questionnaire is attached as Appendix II.

DC Appleseed's Project Team sent the copies of the survey in July 1998 to the Denver and Seattle council presidents, both of whom had participated in the NLC meeting referenced above.120 After reviewing their responses, the DC Appleseed Project Team revised the survey and, in August 1998, sent it to councils in the remaining 12 cities, including the District of Columbia. Councils in I I cities — including Seattle and Denver — and the District of Columbia returned surveys by October 1998.121 After receiving the completed surveys, Project Team members spoke with contacts in most city councils and asked them to clarify any ambiguities.

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The DC Appleseed Project Team invited each D.C. Council member to meet with us so that we could gain an understanding of the views of individual Council members about the operations of the Council, and solicit their opinions about specific areas that should be examined in DC Appleseed's study After meeting with the Council Chair in late 1997, we wrote to each Council member in March 1998 requesting such meetings, and followed-up with phone calls to each member's office. DC Appleseed Project Team members met with the Council Chair, five other Council members, and staff from the offices of two additional Council members.

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In September and October of 1998, DC Appleseed Project Team members interviewed 16 individuals who spend (or have recently spent) a significant amount of time observing and trying to influence the D.C. Council. These professional advocates, citizen activists, and labor leaders have important perspectives on how the Council operates, and how its operations can be improved. To ensure that we considered a wide range of views, the Project Team interviewed seven business and professional representatives, six individuals who work for nonprofit advocacy organizations, two citizen activists, and a labor leader.122 While each interviewee has had extensive contact with the Council, four also formerly worked as members of the D.C. Council staff.

These interviews provided considerable anecdotal evidence about the Council's operations. The DC Appleseed Project Team did not accept at face value the validity of every compliment or complaint made in these interviews, but rather examined all comments critically and focused on the themes that emerged from the interviews. Indeed, many of those interviewed expressed the same concerns about the Council's operations.

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The DC Appleseed Project Team also sought the perspective of D.C. residents who do not have regular interactions with the D.C. Council. In order to sample their views on Council operations, the Project Team held a meeting of nine citizens who have testified before the Council within the past three years. Five of the participants were selected from witness lists provided by the Council. Due to (1) the Council's inability to produce witness lists from many hearings for which notice appeared in the D.C. Register and (2) difficulties faced in trying to locate people on witness lists provided by the Council, the Project Team selected four additional participants based on recommendations of others who have testified before the Council.

The focus group represented a cross-section of District residents. Three participants were African American, one was Latina, and five Caucasian; seven were of working age, one was retired, and one was a twelve year-old girl; there were seven women and two men in the group. The group included a public school clerk, an artist, a real estate appraiser, a landscape architect, and an elementary school student. Five participants had testified only once or twice before the Council, two had testified five or six times, and the other two had testified multiple times over many years. Collectively, the participants had testified before all Council committees (except the Committee of the Whole) on a wide range of issues, including the quality of school lunches, methods for appraising real estate, construction of the Barney Circle Freeway, funding for the U.D.C. School of Law, and the possible closing of Eastern Market.

The focus group session was moderated by Peter Szanton and DC Appleseed Executive Director Joshua Wyner, and was held at the law firm of Covington & Burling. A summary of the meeting is included as Appendix III.

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The DC Appleseed Project Team sought archival information from the D.C. Council in several areas of research. A surprising amount of data were unavailable because, it appears, the Council either does not collect the data and/or the data are not kept at a central location. For example, access to actual (as opposed to budgeted) staffing information is limited to payroll reports that fail to specify the office to which individual staff are assigned. Even budgeted staffing information publicly available in the District's Budget and Financial Plan is so general as to make analysis virtually impossible. Additionally, when the Project Team requested lists of witnesses from particular public hearings, we were told that such lists were not available for many hearings. In light of our research experience, DC Appleseed notes the lack of transparency regarding the D.C. Council's internal operations, and suggests that the Council examine this issue further.

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A. Emergency Legislation

Until 1994, the Council reported the percentage of legislation enacted on an emergency basis during each Council period.123 Because the Council has not reported those data since 1994,124 the DC Appleseed Project Team researched the rate at which the emergency legislative process has been used more recently, as well as the reasons that the emergency process was used. Specifically, the Project Team examined all legislation enacted in 1996,125 created a list of all 260 pieces of legislation passed by the Council and signed by the Mayor in that year, and determined that 121 of the acts were enacted as emergency bills, 35 as temporary bills, and the remaining 104 as "standard" legislation.126 The Emergency Declaration Resolution and the text of each act were also examined, but we were unable to determine the precise reason each was enacted as emergency legislation. Several reasons were identified and examples were chosen as case studies for additional research by the Project Team.

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B. Staffing

The DC Appleseed Project Team attempted to determine precise staffing levels and staff organization at the Council by examining a number of sources, including the budget information contained in the District's annual budget and a Council payroll report. However, the budget did not provide enough detail regarding staffing; the payroll report for the first pay period in March 1998 did not include adequate information about job titles, and it was unclear whether the report represented all staff actually employed by the Council. Thus, neither document presented a clear picture of either the number of staff at the Council or how staff are organized.

Accordingly, the Project Team used the staffing data — including the number of employees, the organization of staff, and staff compensation — provided by the Council staffs response to the DC Appleseed questionnaire. Although these numbers are based on appropriated staffing levels, and do not always reflect actual practice, these data were the best available.

C. Public Hearings

The Council maintains no official public repository of data regarding the number of hearings held in any given year.127 Faced with a dearth of official information about the public hearings of the Council and its committees, the information regarding public hearings was gathered from the Council's rules, the Council's response to DC Appleseed's questionnaire, and from the interviews and focus groups described above.

[Charts from Appendix I and Appendix II are not available on-line.]

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APPENDIX III: Focus Group Summary and Participant Descriptions

On November l 7, l 998, the DC Appleseed Center held a focus group of nine District residents who have each testified before the D.C. Council once or a few times, but none of whom have testified frequently. As described in the Methodology section of this report (see Appendix I at 1-5), the group represented a cross-section of District residents. The focus group was moderated by Peter Szanton, a nationally known mediator, and by Joshua Wyner, DC Appleseed's Executive Director. A summary of the discussion and a more detailed description of each participant follows.


Notice. Participants are frustrated by the system for giving notice of public hearings. There was consensus that the notice process does not seem to be designed to reach the average citizen. Citizens must be affiliated with a well-functioning organization or have a relationship with Council staff members in order to reliably receive notice of meetings. The D.C. Register was not deemed an adequate source of notice. Only one participant subscribes to the Register, while most participants did not know about the existence of the Register.

Participants believe that notice is often too brief, with mailings coming only days before the hearing. The participants felt that this short notice period favors professional lobbyists, who are much better situated to prepare testimony and gather supporters on an accelerated basis.

In order to improve notice, participants agreed that notice should be:

  • placed in local daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers;
  • put on the Council's web site (and that the web site should include the entire D.C. Register);
  • available by telephoning a central phone number; and,
  • distributed through mailings and by e-mail to interested parties.

The Council should also distribute notice to a wider set of organizations, such as civic associations, and should more regularly notify Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners.

Materials. There was a sense that bills are usually available to the public upon request, but that more could be done to let the public know what information is available and where it can be found. One participant had received bills from the Office of Legislative Services ("OLS") and described this office as reliable, but also mentioned that OLS occasionally runs out of copies, and, rather than making a copy when requested, asks citizens to return later. Most participants did not know about the existence of OLS. Another participant stated that witnesses who know a committee staff member can call and have a copy of a bill sent by facsimile.

Testimony. Only one participant was asked by staff before a hearing to explain what he would testify about. In all other cases, the participants stated that the Council staff had not asked for such information.


There was consensus that, although Council members and staff are individually accessible in the District, the Council process is not geared towards the public. As a result, many focus group participants reported feeling "insulted" at some point during the process.

Arrival at the chambers. The participants expressed concern that the hearing process is designed for those who testify frequently. Participants reported that, when arriving at the Council chambers to testify for the first time, they did not know what to do or where to go. One participant compared this to testifying at the Prince George's County Council which routinely provides instructions and materials to witnesses. To facilitate better understanding of the legislative process, participants recommended that:

  • in each public hearing notice, the Council identify a resource for readily available background information (such as a pamphlet) on how hearings are organized and how witnesses should prepare; and
  • the Committee Chair begin hearings with a description of the stage of the legislative process that a proposal is presently in, so that witnesses understand their role in the process.

The participants all felt that the Council does not provide enough information to the public at the hearings. The Council puts witness lists and other information on a side table, and rarely has enough copies for all participants. This was compared to Prince George's County, where plenty of materials are provided at an obvious location.

Participants expressed the opinion that the Council should not ask witnesses for 15 copies of written testimony. This request puts a hardship on many citizens who do not have access to a copier. The Council should make it as easy as possible for the public to testify, and thus, should only ask witnesses to bring in one copy of their testimony and the Council should make enough copies to distribute to the public and Council members.

Executive. There was consensus that the hearings are not arranged to facilitate the testimony of citizens. Executive-branch officials typically speak first and are given a virtually unlimited amount of time to speak. Public witnesses must wait (often for hours) to testify until the executive representatives finish. Participants agree that this process gives citizens the impression that they are not important. Participants also expressed concern because agency representatives rarely stay to listen to the public.

While there was general consensus that the executive should speak first, one participant disagreed, stating that, in order to be fair, all witnesses, including the executive, should be placed in a lottery for position on the witness list. However, the group agreed with one participant's suggestion that the executive should be limited to approximately 30 minutes at the start of the hearing and should speak again at the end of a hearing to respond to public concerns.

Waiting time. No participant had ever waited less than an hour to testify, and most had waited far longer. Participants stated that they generally do not know when they will speak, and they just sit and wait.

Council members' attendance. The participants noted that the Council members do not stay at hearings for very long, and felt strongly that stringent quorum requirements should be established. Participants stated that, after the executive testifies, Council members often leave. A few participants reported occasions when they were speaking only to the cameras, leaving the impression that the Council members simply do not care about the public's testimony.

Quality of hearings. Members of the group expressed the opinion that the Council rarely appears to be in an information gathering mode during hearings, and instead appears to be just going through an exercise; the Council members have made up their minds, and are just providing time for the public to "vent." Three participants, however, had attended extremely useful hearings in which the Council members appeared to listen to the public and learn from the process. After citing examples, the group concurred that hearings are useful and productive when the subject is simple, and the positions are easily defined. Examples presented of well-run hearings include those on the possible closing of Eastern Market, and on the construction of the Barney Circle Freeway. In each of these, witnesses were described as well-prepared and organized, and Council members as attentive. The group surmised that the Council has more difficulty at hearings on more complex issues, such as police redistricting and tax legislation.

Time limits. Participants stated that time limits are not now, but should be, uniformly enforced. Currently, Council members will selectively allow witnesses to testify for long periods of time and will limit others to a short period. One participant mentioned that she did not know time limits existed; she attended a hearing once in which a witness spoke for 45 minutes, presenting two separate videotapes. The group agreed that a system of lights to demonstrate when witnesses are running out of time would be useful.

Council member preparation. The participants stated that Council members too often appear unprepared for hearings, and rarely ask good questions of the witnesses. Understanding that it is difficult to force Council members to prepare, the group agreed with one participant's recommendation that witnesses and the public be allowed to suggest questions to Council members. They also felt that the public should commend Council members who prepare for hearings and encourage others to follow the example. One group member recommended that committee members collectively determine the purpose of a hearing before it starts so that the hearing can be focused on the most important issues.

Post-hearing. There is little follow-up with witnesses after hearings. One witness indicated that a Council member met with her after she testified concerning the subject of her testimony. Other participants received form letters as follow-up. One participant noted that she had seen Council members ask witnesses for contact information during hearings, but had no knowledge of whether those Council members followed-up with the witnesses.


Participants had varying experiences with staff, agreeing that the quality varies a great deal between committees. Participants agreed that having a personal connection with staff makes it easier to receive materials. When a personal connection does not exist, participants agreed, staff members exhibited concern that any information provided to witnesses concerning a legislative proposal would be used to embarrass the Council member and, thus, very little information was offered.

One participant stated that although staff members are often bright, they don't know much about the legislative issues to which they are assigned, and don't seem to make efforts to learn. The consensus among participants was that the burden is on the citizens to approach the staff end educate them the issues.


Six of the nine participants subscribe to cable television. All of them watch Council activities on District Cable television.

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Focus Group Participants:

Participant one is a D.C. government employee, a D.C. public school parent, and a PTA member who has testified twice: before the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation on school lunch quality, and before the Committee on Human Services about health insurance.

Participant two is an artist who testified once before the Committee on Government Operations on the status of Eastern Market.

Participant three is the executive director of a nonprofit organization who, as a representative of neighborhood and city-wide groups, has testified before the Council committees a total of six times. He testified before the Committees on Education, Libraries and Recreation; Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, and Local, Regional and Federal Affairs on the Rock Creek Park General Management Plan, the DRP budget, housing code enforcement, shuttle links and Metrorail, low income housing needs, and zoning.

Participant four is a retired federal staff member and a member of Capitol Hill nonprofit organizations who has testified many times before the Council over the past 30 years on issues such as environment, zoning, historic preservation, and economic development. In recent years, she has testified before the Government Operations, Public Works and Environment, and Finance and Revenue Committees.

Participant five is the executive director of a nonprofit organization who has testified a total of 15 times before Council committees. She has testified before the Judiciary, Human Services, Economic Development, and Finance and Revenue Committees on issues including health mergers, McMillan Reservoir, and police department redistricting.

Participant six is a commercial real-estate appraiser who has testified twice before the Council: before the Economic Development Committee on a banking bill involving the use of licensed appraisers in D.C., and before the Finance and Revenue Committee on the proper valuation method for appraising cooperative apartments.

Participant seven is a landscape architect, a member of a number of environmental organizations, and a D.C. public school parent who has testified once before the Local, Regional, and Federal Affairs Committee on the General Management Plan for Rock Creek Park.

Participant eight is a language minority education specialist who has testified before the Committee on Education, Libraries & Recreation approximately five times on education issues, including the D.C. School of Law closing, special education, charter schools, and other issues related to language minority students.

Participant nine is a twelve year-old student at a D.C. public elementary school who has testified twice: before the Committee on Education and Libraries on school lunch quality, and before the Committee on Human Services about health insurance.

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APPENDIX IV: The District of Columbia Council's Standard Legislative Process

To become law under the District's "standard" legislative process, a legislative proposal must pass through several stages: introduction, committee review, three separate meetings of the full Council, signature by the Mayor, Control Board review and Congressional review. During this process, the bill will undergo at least five drafts: the introduced bill, the draft committee print, the committee print, the Engrossed Original, and the Enrolled Original. Each stage and draft is described below.


A. Drafting

Only Council members may introduce legislation, although the Council must also introduce legislation that the Mayor and independent agencies submit for introduction.128 Legislation that the Mayor or independent agencies wish to introduce must be submitted to the Council's Secretary for a determination as to whether it is in the proper form.129 If the form is approved, then the Chair of the Council is required to introduce the legislation.130 Legislation introduced by Council members is governed by the following separate requirements: it must (1) be typewritten; (2) be signed by the member introducing it; (3) include a "long title" that identifies the bill's subject matter; and, (4) be in substantial compliance with the "form required for final adoption."131

Legislation may be drafted by any of the following:

Committee Staff. Legislation drafted by committee staff is — like that drafted by individual office staff — of uneven quality. Moreover, as discussed in Chapter 1, committee chairs control the workload of committee staff, including legislative drafting assignments. While there is no written prohibition against other committee members using committee staff to draft legislation, the general practice is that such assignments must be cleared in advance with the committee chair. As a result, even a Council member who wishes to draft and introduce a bill whose subject matter is under the jurisdiction of a committee on which he or she serves, but does not chair, is likely to have that bill drafted by a member of his or her individual staff who is unlikely to be proficient in the subject matter. Compounding the problem, the bill is often not reviewed prior to introduction by a knowledgeable person on the committee staff.

Individual Member's Staff. Because committee staff work for the committee chair, Council members often rely on their individual office members to draft legislation that they wish to introduce. Although most Council member offices have a staff member with the title "legislative assistant," those staff do not necessarily draft all the Council member's legislation, nor are they necessarily proficient in legislative drafting. Very few individual office staff et the Council arrive at the Council with (or are provided) formal training in legislative drafting.

General Counsel 's Office. Under the Council's rules and (DC Appleseed understands) in reality, all Council members have access to the General Counsel's office for legislative drafting purposes. The General Counsel's office has recognized expertise in legislative drafting and Council members rely on the office for some legislative drafting services. However, the office is not used as often or as effectively as it could be. One reason for underuse of the General Counsel's office, according to those interviewed by the Project Team, is the limited amount of staff available for this purpose.

Lobbyists. As happens in other legislatures, lobbyists for businesses, labor, and other interest groups often draft legislation, either on their own initiative or at the request of a Council member. The degree of scrutiny given lobbyist-drafted legislation — as with all legislation — varies considerably among Council members. Indeed, the DC Appleseed Project Team was told during interviews with those who lobby the Council that some Council members will introduce, without modification, legislation drafted by lobbyists.

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B. Information Accompanying Introduced Legislation

A Council member introducing legislation is required to provide only a signed original of the legislation to the Secretary; Council rules do not require bills or resolutions introduced in the Council to include any information explaining their purpose or impact.132 While such legislation may nonetheless be accompanied by a statement or press release, these documents tend to provide little detail or analysis of either the matter to be addressed by the legislation or the legislation itself.

By contrast, legislation transmitted by the Mayor for introduction by the Chair is uniformly accompanied by a "letter of transmittal" that explains why the legislation is needed and what the legislation seeks to accomplish. While some of those interviewed by the Project Team described these letters as helpful, others described them as containing little useful detail and analysis. Mayoral legislation is sometimes also accompanied by a report from the agency that generated the legislation or a section-by-section analysis, but is neither required nor normally provided.

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A. Information Gathering

Following introduction, a bill is referred by the Council Chair to the Council committee (or committees) that has (or have concurrent) substantive responsibility for the subject matter of the legislation. Typically, a committee will review proposed legislation and receive public comment through the formal public hearing process, although public hearings are not required. In addition, the committee will assess the position and/or concerns of the executive branch, other public entities, and Council members through informal means. During this stage, one or more "discussion" redrafts of the bill may be generated, but officially the bill remains unchanged.

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B. Mark-up

When a committee chair decides to report a bill to the full Council for consideration, the committee schedules a meeting to mark up the legislation. In addition to considering proposed legislation, the committee must consider the adoption of a committee report. The Council's rules require that a draft committee report be circulated to committee members before the committee considers a piece of legislation, unless the committee votes to waive this requirement for a particular bill or resolution.133 The rules do not specify the amount of time prior to a mark-up session that the draft report must be circulated.

That report, which must accompany any bill reported to the full Council, must contain at least the following information:

  • a statement of the legislation's purpose and effect;
  • a chronology of action, including the date of introduction, public hearings or roundtables,134 and date and description of any action taken at a committee meeting;
  • a detailed section-by-section analysis;
  • a fiscal impact statement;
  • an analysis of the legislation's impact on existing provisions of law;
  • dissenting, separate, and individual views of committee members, if a member requests the opportunity to state his or her views;
  • additional information that the committee directs to be included;
  • a record of the results of a voice vote or, if a roll call vote was taken, the votes for and against adoption of the legislation by the committee; and
  • recorded votes on amendments made to the bill in committee.

In most instances, the committee staff prepares a draft committee print of the legislation, incorporating the committee chair's changes to the introduced version. Such changes can range from simple corrections of minor drafting errors to wholesale alterations that create, in essence, a new bill that has little in common with the introduced version other than its title and bill number. In addition, new provisions can be added to the draft committee print version of the bill that are not germane to the original subject matter of the bill introduced.

At the mark-up session, any of a committee's five members can offer amendments to the draft committee print version of the legislation. All amendments, the committee print, and the committee report are then voted on, with approval defined as an affirmative by a majority of a committee quorum (which consists of a minimum of three members).135

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Normally, the full Council holds three separate meetings to consider every piece of standard legislation: Committee of the Whole ("COW") review and two readings at two separate legislative sessions.

A. The COW Session

After a committee print and committee report are approved by a committee, they are forwarded to the Secretary's office and — as long as they are "timely" filed — are scheduled for consideration at the next session of the Committee of the Whole ("COW"), which is the entire Council sitting as a committee. Legislation is neither debated nor amended at COW sessions. Rather, COW sessions are intended to provide Council members the opportunity to ask questions about legislation, to allow the Council to determine whether legislation is legally and technically sufficient, and to permit a determination as to whether legislative records are complete.136

The General Counsel's office reviews legislation for technical and legal sufficiency prior to COW consideration. While the General Counsel's review may be coordinated with the committee responsible for the legislation, more often, this review takes place after committee action. The general practice is for the General Counsel to prepare and circulate to all Council members a list of "technical amendments" needed to make the bill technically and legally sufficient.

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B. The First and Second Readings

In order to become law, all standard legislation must be approved by the Council in substantially the same form at two separate legislative sessions attended by a majority of Council members with at least 13 days between each reading.137 Council approval is defined as a vote for approval by a majority of the members present and voting. A bill approved upon first reading becomes known as the "Engrossed Original," and is automatically referred for second reading. A the bill approved at a second reading becomes known as the "Enrolled Original," and is sent to the Mayor.

At legislative sessions, bills are grouped into two categories — consent and non-consent. Bills are placed on the consent agenda if the Council Chair believes they will be approved unanimously and without debate.138 Bills placed on the consent agenda are considered twice at separate legislative sessions.   Council members cast a single vote at each legislative session on all items listed on the consent agenda. Even a bill on the consent agenda may be amended by the chair of the committee that sent it to the Council if the amendment is delivered to the Secretary of the Council and circulated at the Committee of the Whole meeting.139

Any Council member may remove a piece of legislation from the consent agenda without consulting with other Council members. In addition, any Council member may, at the legislative session, move an item from the non-consent to the consent agenda as long as no other Council member objects.

At the first reading of non-consent agenda legislation, any Council member may offer an amendment to the committee print. Amendments may propose to alter a particular provision of the bill, add a provision to the bill, or may present an entirely new bill that simply maintains the same title and bill number — known as an amendment in the nature of a substitute. Indeed, there is no germaneness requirement for amendments offered by Council members.

When a bill is passed by the Council at the first reading, it becomes the Engrossed Original. At the second reading, the Engrossed Original is placed before Council members for a vote. As at first reading, amendments may be offered by any Council member. While there is no germaneness requirement for amendments offered at second reading, because the Engrossed Original must be "in substantially the same form" as the Enrolled Original, any substantive changes between the two will require that the Council hold a third reading, which necessitates another 13 day wait.

While the Engrossed and Enrolled Originals are prepared by the General Counsel's office, staff of the committee that approved the legislation generally reviews and comments on the versions of the bill prepared by the General Counsel. Both the Engrossed and Enrolled Originals must reflect exactly what was approved by the Council, incorporating all amendments made and adopted.140

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C. Fiscal Impact Statements

In addition to approving the actual bill (or resolution), the Council must concurrently approve a fiscal impact statement ("FIS") for the bill (or resolution) to be enacted. An FIS can appear either in the text of the legislation itself, in a committee report, or in a separate document presented to the Council. An FIS both (1) estimates the costs which will be incurred by the District government in each of the first four fiscal years that the act is in effect, and (2) includes the basis for that estimate. The required contents of an FIS have been greatly expanded in recent years, in conjunction with the Control Board's responsibility for reviewing legislation adopted by the Council. Under the Council's current rules, an FIS must include:

  • a general statement of the effects the measure will have on the operating and capital budgets for the current and next four fiscal years;
  • a quantitative estimate of the expenditures needed to implement the measure;
  • if the measure is to be implemented within the current fiscal year, an identification of the revenues and funds currently available, or likely to be available, from existing revenue sources to implement the measure, and a statement of the extent to which current appropriations are available to finance implementation of the measure; and,
  • an identification of the specific funding source to be recommended by the Council to implement the measure in any fiscal year in which the cost of implementation is estimated to exceed $100,000.141

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After receiving the legislation, the Mayor has ten working days to sign the bill (at which point it becomes an act) or to veto it. If the Mayor takes no action, the bill automatically becomes an act.142 If the Mayor vetoes the bill, and sends it back to the Council, the Council then has 30 calendar days — at a legislative session attended by a majority of Council members — to override the veto by two-thirds of the members present and voting.143 If the bill becomes an Act, it is assigned an act number and is transmitted to the Control Board for review.144

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The Control Board has a minimum of seven calendar days to review (and, if it wishes, to reject) legislation enacted by the Council in order to determine "whether [the bill] is consistent with the applicable financial plan and budget . . . and with the estimate of costs accompanying the Act."145 The Control Board may request an additional seven days for review, for a total of 14 days.146 If the Control Board fails to reject legislation during the review period, approval is assumed.147

Next, Congress has an opportunity to reject the law during a 30 legislative day period, which must expire before a bill becomes law.148 If the period expires without Congressional action, the bill automatically becomes law. Because a legislative day is defined as a day that at least one house of Congress is in session and thus excludes Saturdays and Sundays,149 the review period lasts a minimum of six weeks, and, if the review period extends over a Congressional recess, can last many months. The counting stops for Congressional vacations and other breaks which can last from a few days to over a month. Also, the 30-day period must begin and end during one Congressional session. This means that, in a federal election year, unless Council legislation is submitted to Congress more than 30 workdays before the Congress adjourns, the time period will begin anew during the next Congressional session, and any time accrued during the election year will be lost.

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Once they become law, most acts of the Council are reflected in the District of Columbia Code. While the Code is the most comprehensive source of District of Columbia statutory law, it is not complete. Acts that enact or amend D.C. government regulations are not contained in the Code, but can only be found in the D.C. Municipal Regulations. Moreover, acts that have cleared Congressional review but are not yet "codified" are available only from the Council itself or through on-line computer services, such as WESTLAW. Accordingly, the text of the D.C. Code cannot be relied upon as including every provision of D.C. law.

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79. Elaine B. Sharpe, Urban Politics and Administration: From Service Delivery to Economic Development, (1990) at 82.

80. For example, public hearings have been described as "ritual" or "useless" endeavors that rarely affect government decisions; as generally providing participants with the feeling that no one is listening; and as often too large and unwieldy to foster productive discussions. See John Clayton Thomas, Public Participation in Public Decisions: flew Stills and Strategies for Public Managers, 115; The Harwood Group, Kettering Foundation, Citizens and Politics, A View from Main Street America (1991) at 14-15. Public hearings may not always be ideal vehicles for public input. Accordingly, the Council should consider additional ways for the public to participate, such as establishing written comment periods, convening town hall meetings, and holding open office hours for Council members. See, generally, Elaine B. Sharpe, Urban Politics and Administration: From Service Delivery to Economic Development, (1990).

81. While the Council holds hearings outside of the legislative context (i e., for budget review, oversight) DC Appleseed's specific recommendations relate only to hearings on legislation and legislative issues. Nonetheless, several of our recommendations (e.g. rigorous enforcement of time limits and germaneness on both witnesses and Council members) apply with equal force to budget and oversight hearings.

82. Public hearings held by the Council and its committees are governed by the Rules of Organization and Procedure for the Council of the District of Columbia Council Period XIII ("Rules"), effective January 4, 1999. These Rules are effective until superseded by Rules of Organization and Procedure adopted in a succeeding two-year Council Period pursuant to Rule 301. See Council Rule 1005. In addition, certain individual committees have passed resolutions imposing additional procedures or requirements. This report addresses only the rules generally applicable to hearings held by all committees and by the Council as a body.

83. See Council Rule 501. Hearings are required for legislation on certain issues, for example, Real Property Tax legislation, See D.C. CODE §47-812 (emphasis added).

84. See Council Rule 501.

85. See Council Rule 501(c).

86. Id.

87. See Council Rule 502.

88. See Council Rule 422. The Council or a committee may recess a hearing and reconvene without providing public notice. See Council Rule 422(c).

89. See Council Rule 424. The rules do not specify the means for providing abbreviated notice. The requirement that a statement containing good cause be published with the notice could imply one of two things. First, it may be read to require publication in the D.C Register. Alternatively, the notice requirement may invoke Rule 425 which provides that, unless otherwise required, notice of hearings may be given by "(I ) Publication in the District of Columbia Register, (2) Publication in one or more newspapers of general circulation; (3) Mailing notices to a mailing list of organizations and individuals established and maintained by the Secretary; (4) Use of other news media; (5) Posting notice in a prominent place in the John A. Wilson Building and other public buildings or posting places; (6) Facsimile; (7) E-mail; or (8) In any other manner directed by the Council."

90. See Council Rule 421.

91. The Council Calendar is prepared weekly (and occasionally bi-weekly) by the Office of the Council Secretary. The Calendar includes a listing of all scheduled Council and committee meetings for that week, the agenda for the legislative session if one is to be held that week, and a legislative summary that includes introductions, bills, and resolutions passed by the Council, and Council acts which became law during the prior week. The calendar is available for free via U.S. mail to anyone who subscribes.

92. See Council Rule 504.

93. See Council Rule 522.

94. See Council Rule 51 2(b).

95. See Council Rule 503.

96. For example, minutes typically include only a few sentences regarding what each witness said, and generally fail to record such information as how long the hearing lasted and how many members of the public attended the hearing.

97. We do not propose that a hearing be required before the enactment of emergency legislation. Although we believe that such hearings would be useful and should be held, if possible, we understand that the exigency that justified the emergency legislation may also justify a decision not to hold a hearing. we note, however, that two of the 11 other city councils we surveyed require that a public hearing be held before emergency legislation is enacted.

98. Moreover, for those bills about which only a few witnesses will testify, the Council should try to group several together into a single hearing at which related bills can be considered. This will also reduce the number of days on which hearings are held.

99. of course, the Council could hold informal sessions similar to current roundtables to gather information and viewpoints in developing legislation. These sessions should not, however, substitute for public hearings, as roundtables now do.

100. Again, this does not preclude the Council or its committees from holding informal meetings with less or no notice. Indeed, informal meetings can be quite informative and are encouraged in addition to public hearings. However, the Council should not use these meetings as a substitute for public hearings.

101. DC Appleseed hopes that the District's local newspapers would provide notice of D.C. Council hearings as a public service, free-of-charge.

102. E-mail notice avoids the problems of paper mailings. Although a database must be maintained, the cost of a large "e-mailing" is much less than that of a traditional paper mailing. Mailings to defunct e-mail addresses are also less of a problem because they entail virtually no marginal cost.

103. Attaching the existing law provisions should not place an onerous burden on the Council. Compliance with this recommendation should be simple and straight-forward — a photocopy of the existing law provision should suffice. Indeed, attaching the law to be amended would be even simpler if, as urged above, the D.C. Code were enacted into law.

104. In response to the DC Appleseed Project Team's questionnaire, the Council indicated that it currently includes a plain language description with each bill. We have been told by the interviewees and focus group that these descriptions appear sporadically, and, when they do, are seldom useful.

105. In Indianapolis, attendance by Council members at public hearings is so valued that one-third of the members' pay is based upon attendance.

106. Proposal to DC Appleseed Center: Designing City Council Facilities for Effective Governance, James E. Kunde, Coalition to Improve Management in State and Local Government, University of Texas (June 8, 1998) at 2. See also, Norms for Benchmark Councils, John Krauss, Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, Indiana University ( 1994).

107. No member of the focus group had ever waited less than an hour, and most waited far longer, to testify at a hearing.

108. DC Appleseed does not suggest that strict rules regarding time limits and relevancy should apply to every meeting held by the Council. While such rules foster effective formal hearings, the Council should continue to hold meetings in addition to public hearings that are less formal and, thus, not governed by strict rules.

109. If a witness has a disability that prevents delivery of a statement in the usual time allotted, additional time should be provided.

110. We recommend that an audible signal be used, together with a set of lights, to ensure that the time limit does not pass without notice.

111. The four hours should not be taken as a strict time limit. There are times when a hearing cannot be continued to a second day without unduly delaying legislation under consideration. If debate is vigorous and fruitful at a hearing, it may be best to let it continue. Indeed, witnesses expecting to testify may resent having to return for a second day, but these instances can often be anticipated, and the Council should avoid holding hearings that exceed four hours whenever possible.

112. The Project Team met 18 times as a group and many other times in subgroups.

113. Sandra Davis and Thomas Boydell, Survey of Council Structures and Functions: Draft Report, Seattle Legislative Department (1997-98). Data collected by Seattle were not of significant assistance for three reasons: (1 ) only some of the cities chosen for the Seattle study are comparable to the District, (2) much of the information gathered in the survey was subjective and difficult to generalize across cities, and (3) the survey did not focus sufficiently on those aspects of the D.C. Council that are the focus of this report.

114. See D.C. League of Women voters Facts and Issues: Oversight Functions of the D. C. Council, April 1988 and Facts and Issues: Oversight of the D. C. Council: Additional Study Materials, February 1989. DC Appleseed understands that an examination of Council operations occurred under Chair John Wilson, but has been unable to secure a copy of the report.

115. See National Conference of State Legislatures' web site: http://www.ncsl.org/programs/legman/about/sess98.htm   and http://www.ncsl.org/programs/legrnan/about/sess99.htm . Average session length was determined by averaging the listed session lengths for 1998 and for 1999. Information on legislatures in Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania was supplemented with telephone calls to the states on Nov. 3 and 4, 1998.

116. See U.S. Census web site: Estimates of the Population of States: Annual Times Series, July 1, 1990, to July 1, 1997.

117. See National Conference of State Legislatures' web site: http://www.ncsl.org/ncsldb/elect98/partcomp.dbm?yearsel=1999&house=s   and http://www.ncsl.org/ncsldb/elect98/partcomD.dbm~v-arsel=1999&h

118. Baltimore — the sole exception — meets for an average of 7.5 months per year.

119. To define political culture the DC Appleseed team used Daniel Elazar's definition, which he devised by examining public values, attitudes, and beliefs of electorates, and then grouping states into three subcultures — individualistic, moralistic, and traditionalistic. See, generally, Elazar, Daniel J., American Federalism: A View from the States, New York, 1984. DC Appleseed's Project Team excluded from its sample cities within states (such as New Mexico, Tennessee, and Florida) that Elazar classified as traditionalistic — defined as those with political cultures in which politicians come from society's elite, rival factions within the elite compete for office, and the government's role is to maintain the social and economic hierarchy.

The DC Appleseed Project Team evaluated conservatism by using Piskulich's conservatism index, which is based on the voting records of each state's Congressional delegation as represented by the average difference between the annual "scorecards" produced by the Americans for Constitutional Action and the Americans for Democratic Action for the years 1960 through 1984. See, generally, Piskulich, John Patrick, Collective Bargaining in State and Local Government, New York: Praeger Publishers (1992). The index provides a relative scale from least to most conservative. Given the political ideology of the District, DC Appleseed's survey excluded all cities in the 20 most conservative states (including Nebraska, Georgia, and Louisiana).

120. Neither the Detroit Council nor the Kansas City Council were included in the survey because Detroit's population exceeds 800,000 people and Kansas City has a Council-Manager form of government.

121. Cleveland and St. Louis did not respond to the survey.

122. Two additional labor leaders invited to meet with the DC Appleseed Project Team did not respond to our invitation.

123. "Indices: A Statistical Index to D.C. Services" (annual), as cited in Letter from Fair Budget Coalition to David Clarke, (April 13, 1995) (discussing the Council's excessive use of the emergency legislative process).

124. The D.C. Council's response to the DC Appleseed questionnaire contains an estimate of — but no actual data concerning — the use of the emergency legislative process in 1997. Given the concrete data available from prior years, the DC Appleseed Project Team chose not to use the estimated number from 1997.

125. The DC Appleseed Project Team selected 1996 because, when our research began in March 1998, data from 1996 were the most recent readily available.

126. 43 D.C. Reg. Ann. Ind. at 7-59 (1996).

127. When we asked the Council for such information, we were referred to the Council's "public records," which for these purposes consist of audio recordings of public hearings.

128. Council Rule 401. Pursuant to the Home Rule Act, five District agencies are independent of the Mayor's office: Board of Elections; Zoning Commission; Public Services Commission; Armory Board; and Board of Education. Home Rule Act, Pub. L. 93-198, §§491-495 (1973).

129. See Council Rule 401(b).

130. Id.

131. See Council Rule 442(a).

132. See Council Rule 402(a).

133. See Council Rule 443(a). If there is a waiver of this requirement, the committee must vote on the draft report at a regularly scheduled, additional, or special meeting of the committee before filing the report and the reported bill or resolution with the Secretary's office.

134. See Chapter 5 of this report at 45, for a description of roundtables.

135. Council Rules 226(b) and 304. The Chair of the Council sits as an ex officio voting member of all the Council's committees and may be counted towards the quorum requirement, but does not increase the quorum (Council Rule 222). Thus, the committee print of a bill and the committee report can be approved by as few as two standing committee members, or one standing committee member and the Council Chair.

136. The COW session may be, and often is, waived by a vote of two-thirds of Council members. See Council Rule 1003.

137. Home Rule Act, Pub. L. 93-198 §412(a).

138. Council Rule 411.

139. Id

140. The General Counsel is authorized to make — on his or her own — technical changes offered at the legislative session. See Council Rule 263.

141. Home Rule Act, Pub. L. 93-198 §602(c)(3), amended by District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act of 1995 §301(d). See also Council Rule 443(c).

142. Home Rule Act, Pub. L. 93-198 §404(e).

143. Id.

144. Council Rule 444(b)(3).

145. District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act, 109 Stat. 100; §203(a)(2)(1995).

146. D.C. CODE §392.3(a)(5).

147. Id.

148. D.C. CODE §§1-144(e) - 147(c)(1) (Supp. 1979).

149. See D.C. CODE §1-147(c)(1) (Supp. 1979).

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