A Theory on How the Leadership Controls the RI Legislature

I have always been curious as to how the leadership of the Rhode Island General Assembly actually wields power over the lawmaking process. Yet you may remember, for example, that last year’s e-verify bill basically disappeared, because the leadership in the RI Senate wanted it to.
Yet according to a direct reading of both House and Senate rules, no single individual in either chamber has the power to kill a piece of legislation; every bill is entitled to a committee hearing and vote should its primary sponsor request one. Here is the Senate rule on the subject

30(a) Upon a written request by the prime sponsor of any public bill received by the secretary of the senate before the closing of the next legislative day after the deadline for introduction as specified in section 4.6 that a committee hearing be held with respect to such bill, the committee chair shall schedule a committee hearing within eight (8) days of such request unless a later date is agreed to by the prime sponsor. “Received” as used herein shall mean receipt in hand by the secretary of the senate or his/her designee. The secretary shall note the date and time of receipt on the request and such notation shall be dispositive. The committee chair may consider hearings on related matters. The committee shall consider said bill not more than eight (8) days after the committee hearing, unless a later date is agreed to by the prime sponsor. If the committee does not consider the bill then the committee shall be discharged of its responsibility to consider such bill and such bill shall be placed on the senate calendar pursuant to section hereof. Consideration by a committee shall be interpreted to mean any one of the following actions: recommendation of passage, recommendation of passage as amended, transfer to another committee, indefinite postponement, hold for further study or defeat of the bill.
So where exactly does this “power” of the House Speaker and the Senate President to kill legislation derive from?
A clue to the answer may lie in an interesting comment left by State Representative Brian Newberry (R — North Smithfield/Burrilville) in response to Monique’s post on voter-ID legislation, describing the customary process used in at least one RI House committee…
Every bill heard before House Judiciary is “held for further study” as a matter of course at its first hearing. The vote is pro forma and taken at the beginning of each hearing. I personally think that it is kind of silly, but at the same time, there are times when holding a bill “for further study” is appropriate.
If the rules are interpreted as meaning that a bill is entitled to one and only one hearing, could it be that these “initial” votes are being used to satisfy the formal requirements of the House and Senate rules, while leaving the list of bills that actually get deliberated under firm control of the leadership?
Is, perhaps, a rules-amendment requiring hearings upon sponsor request for bills “held for further study” for 15 days or more in order, as a way of improving the democratization of the Rhode Island General Assembly?

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Ken Block
12 years ago

“Is, perhaps, a rules-amendment requiring hearings upon sponsor request for bills “held for further study” for 15 days or more in order, as a way of improving the democratization of the Rhode Island General Assembly?”
Absolutely!! Bills held for further study (I have one now in this status in each chamber) only arise from the legislative purgatory of ‘held for further study’ if the legislative leadership allows the bill to come back to life.
‘Held for further study’ is a cowardly way for the legislature to avoid voting to kill a bill. ‘Held for further study’ allows the legislature to avoid becoming publicly accountable for voting against a bill.
‘Held for further study’ provides an environment where it appears that the majority of members of a committee are not present to hear public testimony on bills. The four times that I have testified to legislative committees this year, less than half of the legislators were present during testimony.
It is an abomination that the House Judiciary Committee votes to hold bills PRIOR to taking testimony for a bill. It is unfair to the public testifying on behalf of a bill.
Ideally, after taking testimony for a specific bill, one would hope that the members of a specific committee would vote a bill up or down based on the strength of the testimony and previous research performed by staff members on a given bill.
‘Held for further study’ makes a mockery of the public’s participation in our legislative process.
‘Held for further study’ is a very formidable tool for legislative leadership to control how the legislature votes on every bill.
It needs to go.

kathy
kathy
12 years ago

This legislature is nothing but a mockery to this state. The voter ID bill, as well as voter initiative, straight party voting, etc, go to further study limbo to die. We have to pressure these folks more than the opposition does.
It’s like let’s hold off on dealing with not holding cities and towns to these mandates that have no money to follow them. If the leadership doesn’t like it, and those who give them their money don’t like it, the bill will never see the light of day.
The electorate needs to snap out of it and stop voting straight party by connecting a line. Just because your neighbor is in the legislature doesn’t mean he will do a good job.

Pragmatist
Pragmatist
12 years ago

This is perhaps the most naive post I have ever read on a political blog ever. Hands down. Bar none. Wow. And you all wonder why there are less than a dozen Republicans in the Statehouse. Wow.

Monique
Editor
12 years ago

“If the rules are interpreted as meaning that a bill is entitled to one and only one hearing, could it be that these “initial” votes are being used to satisfy the formal requirements of the House and Senate rules”
Yes, I was wondering about certain aspects of Rep Newberry’s comments.
If the initial vote to hold for further study is to permit the committee to start it’s work – “hold for study; let the studying begin; call in the witnesses; let’s consider this matter” -and after that, another vote on the bill can be called, that would be fine.
If the initial vote to hold for further study is simply “Okay, we met the letter of the law; let the dictatorship begin”, that’s not fine.

rhody
rhody
12 years ago

Kathy did hit on something. We all talk a great game about wanting to throw the bums out, but then we say, “But not my guy/rep/senator!”
I recognize my senator is part of the problem, but I might as well be screaming in my district’s deep forest. My rep was unopposed in November.

kathy
kathy
12 years ago

Pragmatist
There are hardly any republicans in this state because they have voted with their feet, took their businesses, and what is left of their money with them.
It’s hard to get people to run no matter what their party is. If they don’t have the blessing from those who have hijacked the democrat party, they don’t get in.
Let’s face it, with voter ID and most probably, the bill on eliminating the straight party ticket, will also be held for “study” (hostage), the elections in this state will continue to be fixed.

Monique
Editor
12 years ago

“I recognize my senator is part of the problem, but I might as well be screaming in my district’s deep forest. My rep was unopposed in November.”
… so, um, (la, la, la), who was that again, Rhody …?

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