Capitol Ideas How To: Chairing a Committee

Be Respectful and Do Your Homework

Story appears in the 2013 Jan./Feb. issue of Capitol Ideas

Delaware House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf chairs several committees, including House Administration and Rules committees. He served in the minority party for years and learned lessons in that role. A former state police officer in Dover, Schwartzkopf believes the no-nonsense approach to police work also applies to chairing a legislative committee.


Any committee member, but especially the committee chair, must have a good working knowledge of the bills that come before the committee. “You have to understand the issues and try to understand both sides of the issues, any opposition to the bill, that type of thing,” Schwartzkopf said. “Try to put yourself in their shoes to try to figure out where the argument is going to come from.”


A committee hearing, Schwartzkopf said, is held primarily for committee members to get the information they need to make a decision. “There is a difference between a committee hearing and a public hearing, and I run committee hearings,” he said. He asks the bill’s sponsor to make a presentation about the bill, then asks the committee if they have questions or comments. The public also is allowed to speak, but Schwartzkopf said any additional questions or comments from the committee will come after everyone in the public has had their say. “We try not to have any confrontation or direct back and forth between the public and committee members,” he said.


In Delaware, the public is invited to speak before committees. Schwartzkopf doesn’t deny anyone in the public the opportunity to speak, but if anyone states anything that he or other committee members know to be blatantly false, he will stop them. “I try to keep people on topic and, as long as they’re on topic, they pretty much have free rein to say what they want to say, as long as it’s not being personal against any member of the committee or House,” he said.


While committee members can take as much time as they like in examining issues around the bill, Schwartzkopf typically puts a time limit on members of the public, simply to keep the meetings from going over allotted time. “We get a lot of bills through my committee that have a lot of emotion on both sides,” he said. Usually, he’ll limit people to about three or four minutes, depending on the number of people signed up to speak. “We want people to tell us what they feel, but we don’t need it to be embellished or surrounded or confused by things that don’t pertain to the issue.” Committee members often are running between meetings and it’s important to start and end sessions on time, he said.


Schwartzkopf likes to give a bill’s sponsor every opportunity to make a successful pitch. “Some bills come in with very good intention and they’re not thoroughly written,” he said. When the presentation starts to unravel, he may stop in the middle and make suggestions to the sponsor on getting with an attorney to make the bill better. The committee hearing also might give the sponsor an idea where the opposition might be, and he or she can work with those in opposition to reach common ground.

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