Late in 1806, Ohio was only three years into statehood when the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate met in secret sessions, David M. Gold reports in his history of the General Assembly. The aim? To discuss, confidentially, the machinations of ex-Vice President Aaron Burr, who was marshaling men and boats near Marietta, where the Muskingum River meets the Ohio. Burr’s goal, still murky, likely was the creation of an independent southwestern empire he’d rule after conquering Spanish-held Texas or Mexico, or the Louisiana Territory.
Since then, the legislature has seldom, if ever, and certainly not in modern times, met in secret.
Formally, that means every action the legislature takes is done in public – if you’re in a Statehouse gallery or have access to the Ohio Channel.
But in some ways, the legislature’s floor sessions are form without substance. When a bill reaches the Senate or House for a roll-call vote, it’s destined to pass. And passage simply cements whatever the legislature’s workshops – its committees – have already decided. That is, to know how the General Assembly spends the public’s money, or curbs its liberties, committee hearings are where Ohioans need to be.
If you’re rich, you hire lobbyists. But if you’re Jane or John Ohio, you have to attend committees in person. That’s utterly impractical for most people. While some committee hearings have been broadcast, most haven’t.
So three cheers for House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican from Perry County’s Glenford, and Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, who have ordered the broadcasting of all meetings of every standing legislative committee so anyone, anywhere, can see just how a bill really becomes law.
In wooing Democrats to back him for speaker early last year, Householder promised to begin broadcasting in all ten House committee rooms. He kept that promise in September.
Senate committee rooms were camera-equipped, but the Ohio Channel was said to have insufficient staffing to monitor broadcasts. Then, Ohio’s 2018 construction budget (House Bill 529) authorized spending $80,039 to purchase an additional eight cameras and related gear for committee rooms. And Ohio’s operating budget (House Bill 166), passed last July, granted the Ohio Broadcast Media Commission an additional $675,000, spread over two years, to help fund additional broadcasts of committee hearings.
Human nature being what it is, skullduggery and inside deals will always be facts of political life. Still, it’s about time the public got to see how the sausage is made, at least in the public committee hearings.
We’d like to see more such sunshine on the public’s business in Columbus, including on lobbyists. But Householder’s and Obhof’s decisions — and the funding that made them possible — are a welcome acknowledgement that transparency equals good government. These moves ensure that more Ohioans than ever have the chance to see how their General Assembly members are – or are not – representing them.
— Cleveland Plain Dealer