How To End the Tyranny of “Held For Further Study”, Beginning Immediately
It is essential, not only for new but for all Rhode Island legislators, as well as for Rhode Island citizens, to understand that the ability of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate President to exercise near-total control over which bills receive hearings and make it to the floor is not something expressly written into the legislative rules. Any bill must be given a hearing and a vote at the request of its sponsor (provided it is filed early enough in the session), according to the rules of both the House and Senate. Here is the House version of the rule…
13 (e) Upon receipt of a written request 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. The principal sponsor, with the concurrence of the Chair, may cancel a scheduled hearing with twenty-four (24) hours’ notice to the Chair, which notice shall be posted electronically. A hearing postponed twice at the sponsor’s request need not be re-scheduled. For the purpose of the rule, consideration shall mean a majority vote on one (1) of the following:According to the letter of this rule and its Senate analog, neither the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, nor any committee chair can singlehandedly block a bill from being considered while remaining in compliance with the rules of their respective bodies.
(i) a motion to report the bill or resolution to the House with a recommendation of passage; (ii) a motion to report the bill or resolution as amended, or in substitute form, to the House with a recommendation of passage; or
(iii) a motion to report the bill or resolution to the House without recommendation; or
(iv) a motion to report the bill or resolution to the House with a recommendation of no passage; or
(v) a motion to report the bill or resolution to the House with a recommendation that it be held for further study.
For at least for the past decade or so, the leadership in the Rhode Island legislature has kept its control over what actually gets to the floor through a parliamentary trick which was described by former State Representative Rod Driver in a Warwick Beacon op-ed last year…
When a committee meets to hear testimony on bills, the first thing it does – before any bill is discussed – is vote to “hold for further study” all bills on the agenda….Even when a vote on a bill is taken immediately and without deliberation, that vote still satisfies the requirement of giving a bill its consideration.
After voting to “hold the bills for further study,” many committee members go home. Why waste their time listening to testimony? There may be only four or five members of a 15-member committee still present when citizens who have waited hours to testify for or against a bill finally get their chance.
After a bill is held for further study, there is very little specificity in the rules about what happens next. The practice has been to leave the House Speaker or Senate President to decide if it goes back to committee for an actual hearing and informed vote, meaning that just one person in each body gets to control the entire agenda. That is not the way the legislatures are supposed to work.
Fortunately, legislators who oppose this method of disposing of the Rhode Island legislature’s business do have recourse, under the standard rules of parliamentary law (The RI House references Mason’s Manual of Parliamentary Procedure as its source, the RI Senate mentions Roberts’ Rules of Order).
1. First off, the idea of voting on multiple bills at the same time is poor practice for any decision-making body, and is recognized as such by Mason’s Manual…
Sec. 56 An important principle is that only one proposition can be considered at a time. This should appear too logical and fundamental even to require statement, but confusion frequently results from members attempting to discuss different questions at the same time.2. If a Rhode Island Senator or Representative doesn’t want to see a particular bill thrown into a collective and generic “further study” pile, she or he can make a motion to have that bill considered separately, after the motion to hold everything before the committee for further study is made. The technical term is a motion to “divide the question”…
Sec. 352 Where there is no rule giving members the right to vote separately on each proposition, a member still has the right to submit a motion to divide a question when it contains two or more distinct propositionsAfter the question is divided, a separate vote must be held on the bill (or the set of bills) that was divided out. (And combining 56 and 352, there is nothing preventing further division of a question that contains multiple bills). Doing this in the case of major bills would be an improvement over the current procedure, because committee members would have their votes recorded on whether they supported throwing that bill down the memory hole or not.
3. After the question has been divided, the committee then needs to consider the separate parts in some order, taking up either the single bill first and then the rest of the group, or vice-versa.
4. When the single bill comes up for consideration (or the package of other bills, for that matter), an individual committee member can then make a motion to temporarily postpone its consideration, known in the language of parliamentary law as “a motion to lay on the table”…
Sec. 332 The motion to lay on the table is in order immediately after the stating of a question and before a member entitled to prior recognition has been recognized, or at any time thereafter, while the question is still before the body…The 1989 version of Mason’s Manual suggested this language for the motion…
“I move that consideration [of H5xxx] be postponed temporarily.”It’s important to note — especially in the anti-deliberative atmosphere created in the Rhode Island Senate by current Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed — that Mason’s Manual stresses that this motion is not debatable. In a rational world, this makes some sense, presuming that discussion of a bill is going to take place proximately before a votes on the matter is taken. However, that concept is likely to confuse some of the denizens of the Bizarro World of Rhode Island politics, where voting first and deciding what to debate later is considered the natural way of doing things.
5. At this point, you may ask what is achieved if a motion to “lay a bill on the table” rather than to “hold it for further study” succeeds (besides compiling a count of who voted to make some specific bills disappear). The answer is that while the vote “to hold for further study” counts as the one vote any bill is required to get according to House rule 13, the committee vote to lay a bill on the table does not. If you read the description of what holding for further study is closely, you see that it technically sends the bill back to the House floor…
(v) a motion to report the bill or resolution to the House with a recommendation that it be held for further study.…which is the action that puts its fate in the hands of the Speaker, as Rep. Driver mentioned. The motion to lay on the table, on the other hand, keeps the bill in committee and, as long as a bill remains in committee, it can be recalled by a majority vote of the committee, without the approval of the Speaker of the House or of a committee chair being required. And according to rule 13 in the House, at some point during the session, a bill laid on the table in committee must be recalled, so it can get its required substantive vote.
5A. In the Senate, the situation is a little more ambiguous, as the rules specify that “indefinite postponement” counts as an option for consideration. However, nothing in Senate rules contradicts the premise that “indefinite postponement” keeps a bill within the jurisdiction of a committee, meaning it should be able to be recalled at a later time for consideration by a majority vote of the committee, without permission from the Senate President or a committee chair.
Knowing that well-established and respected processes like these exist will not be enough by itself to fix the problems of the Rhode Island legislature. I expect that the first few times this procedure is tried, if it is tried, the pathway could be a bit bumpy; it might be difficult to find a majority of current members on some committees who want to make decisions for themselves, rather than having the leadership make decisions for them.
But I believe that Rhode Island has come to a point where the necessary components for restoring small-d democratic practice within the Statehouse are ready to come together, i.e. a set of legislators who want to see the Rhode Island General Assembly run less hierarchically and more like the deliberative body that it is supposed to be, a group of citizens who believe the same and who will be willing to bring public attention to the situation, if leadership outright abuses the process in order to hold on to the old ways of doing things, and at least an issue or two in the public spotlight where the position of the leadership differs from that of a majority of members of a committee, or even from the majority of an entire chamber.
Anybody want to nominate a bill that the leadership opposes, but that a majority of the relevant committee might support, to go first?