July 25, 2006

Re: How Things Work on the Hill

Carroll Andrew Morse

In the previous post, Marc relayed the contents of an interview with two retiring State Representatives who were describing the inner workings of the RI Legislature, and how the leadership is able to almost effortlessly kill things that most of the legislature supports. I have two suggestions for reforming the process. These suggestions, by themselves, won’t fix everything -- procedural reform by itself never can -- but they will improve the chances of passing legislation that is good for most citizens but opposed by small but powerful special interests.

Here are the suggestions…

  1. Make the committee votes on every bill available online, in the same manner as floor activity is available in the online House and Senate journals.
  2. Reform the House and Senate Rules, so the power to make committee assignments isn’t concentrated in a single person in each body.

1. Technically speaking, the problem in the RI legislature is not that bills can’t get heard. For instance, according to the House rules, every bill is required to be heard in committee, so long as the primary sponsor asks for a hearing…

Upon receipt of a written request by the Chair for committee consideration from the principal House sponsor of a bill or resolution, a copy of which is to be given to the recording clerk, the committee shall grant to said principal House sponsor a hearing on any said bill or resolution within thirty (30) calendar days of the request, and provided further, that said committee shall grant to the principal House sponsor consideration of his or her bill or resolution prior to the deadline for committee action on such bill or resolution.
I can't imagine Joe Trillo or Nick Gorham saying "I won't ask for a hearing on a bill that I've sponsored because I don't want to cause a ruckus".

The problem, as Representative Davey referred to in his appearance on WJAR-TV, is what happens after a hearing. Committee votes and committee amendments are not regularly made available on the legislature's website, making it difficult to find out who voted for or against a measure in the committee stage. There's no easily-available record that indicates whether something that happened in committee was by unanimous vote -- indicating some measure of true consensus -- or whether a bill was voted along partisan lines, or whether one vote would have made a difference.

Without committee votes easily avaiable, the legislature has a place where it can hide actions that benefit politically connected at the expense of the interests of the average citizen. For example, it would be nice to be able to easily look up who voted in favor and who voted against the Senate Judiciary committee amendments that watered down the Senate's version of eminent domain reform.

The solution to this is to make committee votes on legislation available on the internet available in the same way that information on floor votes is available. The staff who puts the floor versions of bills up on the internet does an excellent job of making information about floor action available completely and quickly. The legislature should do what's necessary to let their internet staff work with the committee clerks to make a journal of committee votes electronically available.

2. This second item concerns the fact that, at least on paper, much of the power of the House Speaker and the Senate President is rooted in their power to appoint all committee chairmen AND designate committee assignments for all members. Here, again, are the relevant sections of the House rules...

The Speaker shall appoint all standing committees and create such other subcommittees and committees as may be required from time to time and appoint thereto. All subcommittees and committees shall have proportionate minority membership when feasible. The Speaker, in consultation with the Minority Leader, shall be the appointing authority for minority membership on standing committees and subcommittees thereof, joint committees, boards and commissions. All vacancies occurring in any committee and subcommittee after they have once been named shall be filled in like manner by the Speaker…

The Speaker shall appoint the chair, vice chair and secretary of each committee. In the event that the chair of a committee is unable to serve due to incapacity for medical or other reasons, the Speaker may appoint an acting chair for the period of such incapacity, which acting chair shall have all of the powers and duties of the chair.

Each member's committee assignment is entirely dependent on a single individual -- an individual not accountable to all the voters of Rhode Island, but only to the voters of a single district. So when your state Rep casts a vote, is he or she thinking of the interests of the voters who elected him or her, or thinks of the interests of the single individual who controls his or her committee assignment?

At the start of the year, House speaker William Murphy talked about studying the possibility of making the legislature full-time. I’m skeptical of the value of that. However, the people of Rhode Island should not entertain any suggesting for creating a full-time legislature until the legislature agrees to make its internal workings much more (d)emocractic.

Finally, let me throw out a few more questions with regards to how the legislature really works (at the moment)...

  • What are the other powers, in addition to the power to assign committees, that the leadership holds over the legislature?
  • Since anybody is supposed to be able to get hearing on a bill they sponsor, what exactly is the power the committee chairmen have to influence the process?