Hawaii's Special Session On Same-Sex Marriage Undermined Democracy

HONOLULU - For the masochists who have sat through more than 50 hours of mind-numbingly repetitive testimony in the state House and Senate on legislation that could open up marriage to homosexual couples, some things have become abundantly clear.

For one, let’s be honest: There has been a lot of BS in the SB1 debate. Regardless of what you believe about gay marriage, this process has, in many ways, not been very constructive.

A healthy democratic and legislative process does involve consultation with the people, experts on a given topic and the declarations of politicians who can explain their votes, express doubts or offer amendments. The ultimate goal of such actions is to add fresh ideas to a debate and improve the legislation, or defeat it.

That has only rarely taken place in this debate.

A key part of the problem can be traced to House Judiciary Committee Chair Karl Rhoads' decision to allow everyone to testify if they signed up in advance. There was no limit on the amount of people who could testify, and 5,184 registered to speak. More than 1,000 had taken a turn at the mic by Monday evening.

This leads to some questions: Have all of those self-selecting voices improved the quality of the debate? After the first 100 or 200, weren’t the core arguments clear enough? Or did so many others really need to speak?

More broadly, was there a better way to do this?

The answers seemed clear in the glazed eyes of committee members who often seemed simply disengaged. This allowed testifiers to squander time by going off topic, repeating the same arguments ad infinitum and spreading patent falsehoods.

Within a different framework, committee members could — and should — have been more persistent in interrupting, clarifying and correcting speakers who said that gay marriage is a gateway to state-sanctioned bestiality and pedophilia, and other offensive ideas that homophobic people have peddled for centuries. They could also have stopped the people who claimed, despite all evidence, that gay people shouldn’t marry because homosexuals have AIDS and that gay marriage in Hawaii will scare off Asian tourists.

And what about the Honolulu police officer (and union president) who vowed to disregard and disobey any law the Legislature might pass that he might have to enforce? Shouldn't a lawmaker have challenged him on that?

The legislating process should be about producing the best possible legislation. People elect representatives to represent them and vote on their behalf. After that, the people have the right to agree or disagree, which they can do by removing their representatives from power.

Also, the remarkable level of repetition in the testimony has not entirely been a coincidence. There was a concerted effort by some church officials and activists who encouraged their church brethren to repeat talking points that were distributed to them. The goal: to delay the vote for as long as possible. Activists brazenly laid out the strategy on Facebook.

Some ideas for the future: When such hearings are held on important topics, while the people and experts must be heard, testifiers should be required to stay on topic, make their point — rather than repeat previous arguments over and over again — and move on.

At the very least, the House should have followed the Senate’s lead and, due to the unprecedented number of testifiers, limited testimony to one minute. And isn't there a better way to reduce the number of people testifying? It's crazy to allow so many people to say the same thing. They can put it in writing.

The overall effect of the way things have been conducted including allowing a particular group to openly undermine the process has produced a spectacle that, in the short term at least, may undermine faith in the legislative process and in democracy in Hawaii.



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