February 8, 2011

How To End the Tyranny of "Held For Further Study" II

Carroll Andrew Morse

Three high-profile bills go before their Rhode Island House of Representatives committees this week, 1) the bill, referred to the Labor Committee to be heard today, that would make the provisions of former Governor Carcieri's executive order on illegal immigration into law, and 2 and 3) bills, referred to the Judiciary Committee to be heard on Wednesday, one establishing same-sex marriage at the statutory level, the other defining marriage as being between a man and a woman at the Constitutional level. (h/t Ian Donnis)

Given the recent history of legislature action in Rhode Island, the question is, once these bills go to committee, who will make the decision on whether they are eventually sent to the full House for a floor vote: the members of the committee together, or the Speaker of the House alone? Does a committee decide what happens to the bill referred to it, or does a committee immediately hand bills back to the Speaker of the House and say "you tell us what to do"?

I have no inside information on what the majority committee positions are in the case of the immigration and the same-sex marriage bills, but they are certainly not instances where straight party-line votes are expected. And if any RI Representative believes that that a majority of a committee on which they serve would decide the fate of a bill differently from what the House leadership would allow, there are the procedures she or he can follow (consistent with Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure, referenced in the House Rules) to help a bill get its rightful consideration.

  1. If the committee meeting begins, as is common practice in Rhode Island legislative committee meetings, with a motion to hold every bill on the current agenda for "further study", any representative can make a motion to "divide the question", and have the bill they are interested in (same-sex marriage, immigration, etc.) considered as a separate vote.
  2. If the legislature follows its own customs and practice, the motion to divide the question should be granted by the committee chair automatically, without a vote being needed. If you check the Journals of proceedings on the House floor, motions to divide the question are routinely granted without a vote being taken, as long as the Speaker rules that a question is divisible. There is absolutely no question that a motion to vote on multiple bills at the same time is divisible into separate votes.
  3. Then when the bill of interest comes up for its separate consideration, if a motion to "hold it for further study" is immediately made, that motion opens the question for debate (it the language of parliamentary law, any motion that would send the bill out of committee falls into the category of a "main motion" which opens general debate on the subject). Any representative who wants to speak on the substance of the question should be afforded the opportunity to do so, before any vote is taken, and the debate should follow the same rules that are followed when bills that have been blessed by the Speaker and the Committee chair are considered. However, just as importantly...
  4. Motions to either postpone definitely, or to lay the bill on the table (two separate options) are now in order. The important difference between a vote to "hold for further study" and a vote for "to postpone definitely" is that further study sends a bill back to the full House, where its fate is placed into the hands of the Speaker, while "definite postponement" keeps the bill in committee, where its fate must still be decided at a later time by a majority vote of the committee, no matter what the Speaker or the committee chairperson thinks.

    A motion for definite postponement could take the form, for example, of a motion to postpone consideration of bill until after the people who have come to testify on that day have been heard, or until the next committee meeting, or until the first committee meeting after witnesses have been heard, etc. Also, according to Mason's Manual, the motion for definite postponement is debatable to the degree that the "propriety of the postponement" is discussed, meaning that it would be perfectly in order for the Rep who made the motion (or any other Rep on the committee) to explain to the other members of the committee (and the audience for the hearing) during their speaking time how this motion keeps the fate of the bill in the hands of the committee, instead of transferring it to the Speaker. (The first time this procedure is used, this might also make for some interesting blank and confused stares on the faces of certain legislators).

  5. The motion to postpone definitely does have to be voted on -- which means the real question about invoking this process centers on whether the members of a committee charged with considering a bill believe that the Speaker of the House would make the same decision on the bill that they would. If they think the Speaker would not allow a bill to get a vote on the House floor, even though a majority of the committee would supports it, then they should follow the procedure described above.
Look, I know that the 19th century language used as the names for some of these motions can make parts of the process sound arcane, but this is not parliamentary trickery being sketched out. This is, in fact just the opposite, a review of some accepted and staid rules, adopted over the centuries of American democracy, to ensure that legislatures are run as the gatherings of equally-ranked representatives of the people that they are intended to be. In the specific context of the RI legislature, those particular principles that need protecting are...
  1. That legislatures make decisions on substantive matters by majority vote.
  2. That legislators cannot be forced to vote on substantive matters, before they have had an opportunity to deliberate them.
  3. That legislators cannot be required to consider unrelated bills at the same time.
If you think those principles are unreasonable, then the form of government you believe in is something other than democratic.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Sounds to me like someone advocating for a full-time legislature.

Posted by: Russ at February 8, 2011 1:11 PM

Yeah, because this kind of authoritarian crap doesn't go on x10 in Massachusetts with their full-time legislature.

Posted by: Dan at February 8, 2011 1:19 PM


Even though I've been using Mason's Manual as my reference for these posts, nothing in them is incongruent with the procedures set out in Robert's Rules, which is used by deliberative bodies of all sizes, including part-time ones (including the RI Senate), so how you make the jump to the conclusion that there is anything related to a full-time legislature here is not clear to me.

By the way, my thoughts on a full-time legislature are here:

Posted by: Andrew at February 8, 2011 1:32 PM

Well, would you expect that these changes would lead to more or fewer bills coming to the floor for debate? More seemed to be the case to me.

Posted by: Russ at February 8, 2011 4:52 PM

I watched the Labor Committee hearing on the immigration bill and Rep.Williams conducted the hearing in a very evenhanded manner although she opposes the bill.
There were some really good questions asked of the people testifying.
Immigration attorney Roberto Gonzalez stated in response to one question that he had no problem with people working illegally for the state.
He actually mocked the term "alien"as making people sound like Martians.
This from an attorney who knows immigration law inside out-"alien"is a legal definition in Title 8.On the cover of title 8 it says"Aliens and Ntionality".Duh.
Mr.Gonzalez demonstrated his unfitness as an officer of the court by advocating for laws to be violated.

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 9, 2011 6:01 AM

"Immigration attorney Roberto Gonzalez stated in response to one question that he had no problem with people working illegally for the state."

I love to ask these people where they live and when are they not going to be home. I want to break into their house and take things they have that I don't have, because I haven't had the luck or opportunities that they have. I also expect that these people will not call the police when they return, as they believe that theft is ok if it's due to someone being unlucky or just lacks the opportunity. Hey, I'm just trying to provide for my family, right?

Posted by: Patrick at February 9, 2011 8:35 AM

Maybe they get a wakeup call if a blitzed illegal driving a wreck blows a red light and t-bones them,or just kidnaps and rapes their wife in a parking lot.Maybe-who knows with these idiots?

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 9, 2011 1:21 PM

I just finished watching the House Subcommittee Hearing on Immigration.

We need laws in place to deter illegals and other non RI residents from coming to RI for benefits and the lack of enforcement of "under the table" laws.....There, I took the "Immigration" out of it.

I was disgusted to see the Chair's conduct this evening. A Chair of such important Committees that are in place to protect RI taxpayers should not be biased nor have such deep hearted opinions come out in a public hearing.

Chairs of these committees should be screened the same way as Juror would be to keep this from ever happening again !

24 years of Military Service and 12 years Municipal and State Service I always protect everyone’s rights and do my job...whether I agree on who should get benefits or not. I went overseas many times and helped even rebuild foreign countries and their infrastructure.

I do not expect to have to do it here in the country I was willing to die for and neither should any other American citizen!

I would take another Bill out to enforce a Waiting Period for RI Public Benefits. You would have to wait 12 to 24 months if you are not a RI Citizen to collect any benefits from the State of RI. Yes Citizen. That means if you are white you blue polka dots from Upstate NY and a US Citizen ...You still have to wait.

Posted by: Ron Sanda at February 9, 2011 6:08 PM

"I would take another Bill out to enforce a Waiting Period for RI Public Benefits. You would have to wait 12 to 24 months if you are not a RI Citizen to collect any benefits from the State of RI."

There is already a law on the books that LEGAL immigrants must wait five years before being eligible for benefits. Illegal immigrants are not qualified to receive benefits at all (other than pregnant women).

But ask DHS what they do to determine whether an applicant is here legally. (My understanding is that the answer is: pretty much nothing.) The problem once again is not the lack of a law but a lack of will to enforce the law.

Posted by: Monique at February 9, 2011 11:34 PM

Now here is the amazing part of this whole mness-we're regressing.
When I transferred here in 1984 INS was routinely contacted by RI Welfare,Unemployment,Higher Ed,Registry and RISP relating to any suspicions they had regarding potential illegal aliens in their purview.
We eventually had a full time status verifier just to handle these inquiries.
RISP contact were handled directly by Investigations.
We also got a twice weekly roster of inmates at the ACI complete with place of birth.
I don't know what happened since I retired in late 1996.
We actually had a handle on entitlement fraud and now it's just a f**kin' mess.
None of this was controversial.
Roberto Gonzales was just another immigration attorney and now he sounds like some big time radical.
The RI ACLU didn't ever pay attention to the raids or residential criminal alien sweeps we conducted.I'll be damned if I know why this good situation deteriorated.

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 10, 2011 12:14 AM

Most likely the easy votes of new "citizens" that got registered in the Dunk so Providence could ensure they get the proper amount of votes! That kind of mentality along with the forgotten DMV fraud licenses that everyone soon forgot. Did anyone go get all of the licenses back and interview their recipients? ...now there is a place to start. It is called enforcement and follow through.

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