March 14, 2013

What the Voiding of the Ethics Vote Can Teach Us (or "A Journey into the Phantom Zone")

Carroll Andrew Morse

1. A great many Rhode Island legislators, along with their minions, supporters and enablers, are confused about the necessity of holding bills for further study. The specific process that is used at the RI General Assembly conflates two ideas that are not inextricably linked.

That it can be prudent to delay action on a particular question until after a first hearing is eminently reasonable. That delaying action can only be done by making the Speaker of the House the sole arbiter of how long a bill is delayed, or if it is ever heard from again, is beyond unreasonable into the realm of the thoroughly stupid.

2. According to the rules of the Rhode Island legislature, any bill that is submitted is guaranteed just one vote in committee. According to the practice of the Rhode Island legislature, that one vote is usually held before the bill has been deliberated. Frequently, that one vote occurs as part of an en masse vote to hold all of the bills on a committee's agenda for further study.

3. Where does a bill held for further study (usually without deliberation) actually go? The text of the motion as described in House rule 12(e)(v) seems to send it to the full House: "a motion to report the bill or resolution to the House with a recommendation that it be held for further study". The House legal staff, on the other hand, is arguing (both in person last evening, and in their remarks to WPRI-TV's Ted Nesi) that a bill held for further study stays in committee, because of the beginning of rule 12(f): "Committee Chairs shall bring reports of committee actions to the floor no later than two (2) weeks following the committee votes thereon, provided that this shall not apply to the Committee on Finance, nor shall it apply to bills being held for further study under subdivision (e)(v)".

Rule 12(f) goes on: "A committee member may move reconsideration of any vote taken so long as the bill or resolution which was the subject of the vote remains in the possession of the committee and that the motion is made by a member voting in the majority". However, the House legal staff argues that this rule does not apply to bills held for further study, because of the previous sentence of 12(f).

Got that? The leadership's logic is that, because of a sentence that says a bill is not to be reported to the full House, it can no longer be treated as if it is "in the possession of the committee", i.e. holding a bill for further study causes it to vanish into a mysterious Phantom Zone, not readily accessible to most of the members of the legislature, from either the committee or the floor.

4. Let's move next to the rule that specifies the process for moving a bill that's been held for further study back to committee. Oh, right, there is no rule for that. The House legal staff also told that directly to Ted Nesi: "[The Speaker of the House's Legal Counsel Susan Pegden] acknowledged that there is no way for the sponsor of a bill to get another vote on it once the bill has been held for further study".

Unsurprisingly, in the absence of a clear process, power has filled a vacuum in good governance and the Rhode Island General Assembly has fallen back to the crudest process there is. One man, the big man of the Smith Hill tribe, makes all the decisions. When support for the voiding of Tuesday's committee vote is offered on the grounds that "the rules matter", this is the rule being defended.

5. If you are believer in the idea that society needs a single leader to bring it discipline and that representative democracy is inherently unmanageable, you can skip the rest of this post. For the rest of you, the question is obvious: Why do rules and processes that send every bill to the Phantom Zone exist in the first place? More formally, what purpose is served by a mandatory process for holding all bills for further study, which results in the House Speaker alone to choose what bills will receive final consideration?

I challenge anyone (not in the group of people described in the first sentence of this item) to come up with a reason why the current process makes sense.

6. There is actually an easy way to fix this that 1) will allow legislators multiple committee sessions to deliberate and consider bills, and 2) should be acceptable to those with a deep emotional attachment to the idea that chaos will shroud the earth if bills cannot be held for further study, while 3) still allowing rank and file members the power they should have to make a real choice on all the issues referred to them.

Just specify in the rules that bills held for further study can be brought back before a committee for consideration either by whatever process is used now or by a majority vote of the committee members (in which case, the bill would be heard at the next meeting, after the posting requirement has passed). That's not going to create an unmanageable process -- so long as the Speaker and the Committee Chairs act in reasonable accordance with the views of their members, which is what they are supposed to be doing anyway.

In the end, if there is a cherished rule built into the workings of the Rhode Island legislature that every bill must be dispatched immediately to the Phantom Zone upon its arrival in committee, then to maintain an actual democratic process, there must also be a way for bringing bills back from the Phantom Zone that any member can initiate.

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Right on! Seriously.

This process has had my head spinning ever since I was afforded the opportunity to tour the State House. We were kindly told, "If you like sausage, you might not want to see it being made." And then the folks I was with and I were afforded an opportunity to play through a mock legislative process. I guess I never loved legislation anyways, unlike sausage, but seeing it made in RI was ridiculous.

Yes, we need more checks on the power of the Speaker. There must be better ways, certainly.

Posted by: Mike at March 14, 2013 5:28 PM
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