Guide to Providing Testimony in Committee
At the Illinois Environmental Council we work to include community members, academic experts, business owners, students, and other passionate individuals in decision making by asking them to testify on legislation in Illinois House and Senate committees. As part of this effort to make the legislative process more transparent and accessible, we have written this piece to offer our advice to anyone who is new to offering testimony in committee.
In Illinois House and Senate committee hearings, witnesses play an important role in providing expert and personal testimony about bills so that lawmakers understand the technical, legal, and other impacts a new law may have. Witnesses are typically invited to testify by lawmakers or interest groups, but it’s also possible to testify as an individual.
The most commons reasons a witness may be called to testify in committee are to (1) Provide legal and technical information about the bill and law that it changes, (2) provide technical information about the subject matter the bill addresses, or (3) provide a personal story about the way the bill would impact you, your family, or your community. Your testimony may be in support or opposition to a bill up for a committee vote that day, or it may be given as subject matter expertise when a vote is not expected but the committee wants to learn more about an issue.
When supporting a bill, it’s best practice for the lobbyists and/or bill sponsors involved in an issue to discuss the matter with every member of a committee before a vote to ensure that the measure has enough votes to move before the committee meets. These advanced meetings also help when preparing for testimony, as they can unveil questions that may arise when before the committee. However, because lawmakers can be non-committal, substitutions are made, or the questions and testimony can go awry, votes can change during committee and change the likelihood of a bill passing committee.
In short, the best way a witness can help ensure a win for their issue is to keep remarks and answers to questions short, polite, and drama free.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve been invited by an interest group, lobbyist, or lawmaker to provide testimony on behalf of a bill. The below can serve as a guide to make sure your time as a witness is successful.
Register. For remote hearings, you will need to e-mail the committee to get your name added to the list at least 24 hours prior to the hearing to get the zoom link. House instructions are here and Senate instructions are here. For both remote and in person hearings, you must file a witness slip indicating your representation, position, and type of testimony (oral). For in person hearings, work to ensure your ability to testify by speaking with the sponsors, committee chair, or committee staff in advance. Unlike local government, the state legislature is not required to take public comment from all interested parties.
Be prepared to be flexible with your schedule. Whether it is a virtual committee or in person committee, hearings can run long, be canceled, or run into time constraints. It’s impossible to tell whether you’ll need to block out ten minutes or four hours. Many times, committees are canceled, even last minute. There are likely to be other bills considered in the committee and the order is not usually announced until the committee starts.
Check your tech. For remote hearings, the House and Senate use a standard zoom system with no chat function enabled. Make sure you have zoom installed. You must have an internet connection, working microphone, and video in order to testify.
If you take one piece of advice from this article, it’s to KEEP YOUR TESTIMONY SHORT. You’ll want to prepare thirty second, three minute, and five minute versions of the same testimony, with three minutes being the most likely amount of time you’ll have. I suggest that in the first thirty seconds, you include a summary of all of the relevant points that you want to make and then expound on those points if you get three or five minutes.
Start your testimony with your name, organization and title. Then address the Chair by name. In a remote hearing, the chair or sponsor will call on any witnesses registered to testify so you will know when it is your turn to take yourself off mute. Ex. “Thank you Chairman Hastings and the Public Utilities and Energy Committee for taking my testimony today.”
Close with your ask. Be sure to end your testimony with an ask to the lawmakers present to vote Yes, No or Amend the relevant legislation. If you are asked to close your testimony quickly, heading to a closing statement that includes this ask is a good idea.
Practice your testimony. Whether you have the testimony drafted word for word or in bullet points, it’s a good idea to prepare and time yourself before you testify.
Avoid rambling, tangents, and talking about unrelated topics. Your goal is to get the votes needed to advance or kill the bill. While this is an important opportunity to educate on a topic, keep your testimony narrowly tailored to the bill or subject matter.
Prep potential questions in advance. From discussing the matter with committee members, you should have an idea of what committee members are likely to ask. Write down some answers for preparation or to use in case you get nervous. You may keep a copy of the bill nearby as sometimes sponsors will reference it.
Know your audience. It’s a good idea to work with whoever invited you to testify or on your own to review the members of the committee that are likely to be present and their interests. Where are they from? How do they vote on this issue? This ensures that you don’t inadvertently neglect or insult a member of the committee and provides you information on whether a question being asked is supportive or antagonistic.
Brace yourself for any criticism. Most of the time lawmakers are incredibly kind to volunteers who are asked to share their personal story about how a bill would impact them, especially volunteers, young students, or those that have been victimized. On a few occasions, I have seen lawmakers on a committee treat witnesses sharing a personal story in an unkind fashion by asking unfair questions. In all of these cases, I have seen other advocates or other lawmakers stand up to support the volunteer.
Never Ever argue with a lawmaker on a committee. In remote hearings, taking yourself off of mute and arguing back and forth with a lawmaker is easier than ever. Don’t do it. It’s ok if the lawmaker gets the last word. Avoid personal jabs, sarcastic responses or comments, or interruptions. Stick to answering the question, even if you feel a lawmaker is being aggressive with you. If you misinterpret them and say something inappropriate or inflammatory, you may cause votes to flip away from your direction.
If you are offering testimony, good luck! The role of volunteer advocates is an important part of the civics process. At IEC, we are passionate about opening the doors of Springfield to environmentalists to ensure that we can pass positive legislation for the environment.