How To End the Tyranny of “Held For Further Study” II
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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).
- 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.
- That legislatures make decisions on substantive matters by majority vote.
- That legislators cannot be forced to vote on substantive matters, before they have had an opportunity to deliberate them.
- That legislators cannot be required to consider unrelated bills at the same time.