The Powerful and Powerless General Assembly
I had been planning to write a post like this but maybe later in the year. However, a letter to the Providence Journal by Mark Binder has sort of accelerated that.
Binder is an Independent candidate for House District 4, the seat currently occupied by House Speaker Gordon Fox. On his web site, Binder illustrates a number of areas where he has issues with Fox and the RI House, but in his letter one line especially stands out.
The strong men and women currently “leading” our state have proven again and again that they are incapable of this sort of leadership. They’ve left us behind.
I couldn’t agree more. The 74 other members of the House of Representatives seem to forget what kind of collective power they have and what power that the Speaker actually has. The Speaker position only has the power that they give him. They can just as easily take it away or override him. But yet, they continue to concede this over to the position. (By the way, the same holds true over on the Senate side too. This is not a one-chamber discussion.) When we ask the Reps or Senators why they continue to allow themselves to get pushed around, they give the same answers, “You’ll never get anything passed if you buck the leadership” or “You’ll get a primary opponent in the next election.” Well guess what, if you all do it, the majority wins. And for some of you, it’s not like you’re getting anything meaningful passed anyway. If you all step up and want change, if you all want your bills heard and not “held for further study”, you can force that change.
On any given bill bill, maybe you don’t care either way so you let it die in committee, but then you sit there seething when the bill you really care about dies because no one else is speaking up for it. Maybe it’s time to think more generally instead of selfishly.
Binder’s letter also showed another example:
In the last session, 50 state representatives co-sponsored a bill reforming payday-lending practices. The representatives wanted to reduce the usurious annual interest rate to 36 percent, from 260 percent. To counter this, one of the largest payday-lending companies hired former House Speaker William Murphy as a lobbyist. The reform bill never came to a vote…
This one is just mind-boggling. A full two-thirds of the House signed their name on this bill but it couldn’t even get out of committee?
Let’s look at Binder’s statement in two parts. First, why couldn’t it make it out of committee? Because the chairman of the committee suggested it and then the committee voted in favor? How is that possible unless that committee just happened to be stacked with people from the 25 who didn’t sponsor it? And what are the odds that all 25 of them were opposed to this bill? When this bill came up in committee, why didn’t the supportive Reps immediately move for a vote to send it to the floor? If they don’t know how the mechanics of it works, Andrew spelled it all out for them almost two years ago with How To End the Tyranny of Held For Further Study. If you sponsor a bill and then sit idly as it dies in committee, you have failed as a representative. Not a capital R, but as a representative of your constituents and the people you were looking to help with that legislation. This happens over and over again in the State House. Many good bills go to die simply because the Speaker doesn’t want them to pass. Letting this happen is a failure of all General Assembly members who don’t work to stop it from happening.
The second part of Binder’s statement just amazes me. Former Speaker William Murphy was the lobbyist against the bill. I’ve read comments from some legislators that Murphy still wields power in the State House. How? Does he have compromising photos of some of the Reps? He’s not there anymore! He’s a lobbyist! How does he have any power at all over them? And why are they rolling over like dogs for a tummy rub for him? If they thought the bill was a good enough idea to sponsor it, then tell the lobbyist “No!”
We keep giving the voters questions to ask the candidates when they come to your door, especially the incumbents like “Do you support same-sex marriage?” and “What did you know about 38 Studios?”, “Did you vote for the loan?”, however questioning the incumbents about what they’re doing to prevent good bills from dying just because one man wants them to would probably be an even better question. Everything else stems from that. When we can get a more open system for legislating, when we can end the last-minute horse trading of bills, then that will be a step in the right direction for good government in Rhode Island and a step forward in improving our state.