Maine Legislature should set time limits on floor discussions

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The last year or so, I started digitizing audio cassettes I’ve kept since the late 1970s. Hold on to cassettes long enough, the significance of their taped content changes.

My tape content is generally music business and Maine politics. The music business tapes are mostly my interviews with well-known drummers (circa 1977-1987), and demo tapes of songs I’ve written. The Maine politics tapes are of significant political events I taped from tv or radio, or from the State House Legislative PA systems.

Many of my cassettes are low quality, cheap tapes. Most are 90-minute tapes (45-minutes per side), with a handful of 60- and 120-minute tapes recorded for personal use. Some to transcribe and edit for publication in magazines and newspapers; others so I would have an audio record of events for future reference.

When I worked mostly researching and writing about politics, the chance to listen back, say, to a Legislative bill debate, or to a political speech, ensured my memory and written notes were accurate.

The Maine Legislature, and the US Congress, keep print records of what politicians say during floor debates. Keeping these public records is required by law.

Yet, early on in my work I discovered neither Maine’s “Legislative Record,” nor the US “Congressional Record,” are, word-for-word, what politicians say during floor debates. Politicians’ make “off the record” comments, which is legal and fine. But “off the record” comments are sometimes helpful to a writer’s understanding what happened and why.

Also, I found Maine Legislative Record tape transcribers sometimes left out important spoken words. Sometimes tape transcribers took liberty with politicians who didn’t “speak too good,” or who “wasn’t” professional speakers, making them in the “Legislative Record” sound like Daniel Webster.

I’m not poking fun at people. My taped interviews are chock full of me stumbling, stammering; using poor grammar. But if taxpayers are paying to have a printed “public record” of proceedings and debates by Maine’s Legislature and Congress, it should be complete and accurate. Warts and all.

The “Congressional Record,” unlike Maine’s “Legislative Record,” has a feature I like very much. Congressional floor debates use time limits. Suppose the US House of Representatives is finished with preliminary consideration of a bill to expand rural internet broadband access. When it’s time for US House Members to vote on the bill, House Leaders set a time limit for bill discussion.

Let’s say they set a limit of 90-minutes. The majority and minority parties each have 45 minutes to speak on the record, to say what they have to say about the broadband bill. Each party chooses one of their members to manage speaking time for their other party members.

After 90 minutes of debate the vote is taken.

Most members speak for one minute, forcing them to not ramble, to get to the point — and they are allowed to insert into the Congressional Record — written extension of their remarks. Readers can easily distinguish remarks spoken from extended remarks written.

I would like to see the Maine Legislature use time limits on legislative floor discussion, allowing legislators to insert into the “Legislative Record” written remarks. In my experience, by the time the Legislature holds final votes on bills, legislators aren’t undecided. They know how they’re voting.

A legislator’s ability to study issues, to measure constituent sentiment, is better than ever with the internet. Legislators can get information and network with constituents 24/7.

Time limited debate would force legislators to make their points quickly, to not speak for speaking’s sake, shorten Legislative Sessions, save taxpayer money.

Plus, in the future, writers like me won’t have to record and lug around for decades 100 pounds of old political cassette tapes.

I don’t see a downside.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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