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Metcalfe's moment

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Sunday, March 27, 2011


Legislative committee hearings are often exercises in self-indulgence by lawmakers, who seem more interested in hearing their own voices than what witnesses have to say.

It's true in both the Senate and the House. A typical question by a state lawmaker often begins with a three- to five-minute oration, before there's -- maybe -- a question. The question for a witness is almost an afterthought.

The hearings are soapboxes for the members, especially when they know they're being taped or broadcast live by the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

"Was there a question in all of that?" you want to say.

It is understandable that the committee chairman at the outset may want to outline what the hearing's about and help define the issues. That makes sense.

But the droning on that typically takes place is disrespectful to the time of experts who often travel considerable distances to offer their testimony.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, chairman of the House State Government Committee, last week put on a clinic in how a hearing should be run. The issue was voter fraud and the proposed remedy, a voter ID card. Witnesses came from Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and other locales to speak before the committee.

Metcalfe said at the outset that legislators who wanted to speak should ask only one question per witness and not offer their opinions in lengthy preludes.

When legislators started to do that, he politely reminded them not to, interrupting -- on more than one occasion -- a legislator who was crossing the line.

The hearing was completed in the projected time period and a ton of valuable information -- pro and con -- was offered to legislators.

Metcalfe said legislators would return at another hearing to analyze the information and would have plenty of time to offer their opinions on a photo ID requirement to vote and the extent to which they think voter fraud is a problem.

A second hearing is a luxury, as far as time, and maybe it can't be done for each and every bill.

But it worked perfectly in this case.

Metcalfe sometimes is not taken seriously by some in Harrisburg because he is, quite willingly, such a lightning rod on hot-button issues.

He is probably the most conservative member of the relatively conservative House GOP Caucus.

There is a built-in bias among some in the media and the Capitol establishment that anyone as conservative as Metcalfe must be a wing nut.

Metcalfe is no more conservative than former State Government Committee chair Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia -- who once admitted she was a member of ACORN -- is liberal.

Josephs presided as the ranking Democrat on the State Government Committee last week.

Some of the testimony concerned alleged voter fraud by ACORN, which supposedly has been dismantled. According to Judicial Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit, reports of ACORN's demise have been greatly exaggerated, in that groups by different names work in the same locations with former ACORN personnel.

Other committee chairmen in the House and Senate should take note of how Metcalfe ran this hearing.

Neither Metcalfe nor Josephs should be written off because of their ideology.

They are polar opposites who balance the State Government Committee -- with many of the members somewhere in the middle -- quite well.

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