A Proposed Rules Change, to Restore the Democratic Process in the Rhode Island House

In a separation of powers system, the legislature is made to be the most powerful branch of government precisely because no one person is supposed to be able to easily dominate its proceedings. Rules of a legislative body are supposed to support this principle. Indeed, early on in the parliamentary manual used by the Rhode Island House of Representatives, the spirit of egalitarianism supposed to guide any legislature is expressed with wonderful clarity…

Sec 52. Equality of Members — In public bodies, the equality of members is presumed. It would seem that for any democratic group to operate, acceptance of the principle of equality of members is essential. Unless that equality is recognized, there is no basis upon which it can be determined who or what number has authority to speak for the group and to make its decisions. Equality seems essential also to secure the accpetance in good faith of the decisions of the group.
Alas, a majority of Rhode Island legislators have somehow been talked into (or talked themselves into) believing that the equality of members is dangerous, and that they must give up the power they should have to participate in setting agendas for substantive committee actions, or else be overwhelmed by the volume of business they have to deal with.
Now, some legislators may sincerely believe that giving one person absolute control over the voting agenda, no exceptions allowed, is the best system of governance there is. But because some legislators believe in the efficiency of one-man rule does not mean that such a system can justly be imposed upon legislators who don’t. For an assembly to be considered democratic, pathways that rank-and-file members can use to bring business before the body must be available — even when the leader of the body is one vote (of many) opposed to consideration of a particular item. (If you want to be the one person who can block a bill, then there’s a different office to run for, one that is directly accountable to the voters, and one where your decision can be overridden).
A pathway that allows any legislators to participate in agenda setting does exist in letter of the rules of the Rhode Island House of Representatives: the rule on reconsideration, used by Rep. Patrick O’Neill to call for a vote on the Ethics bill (which the House Labor Committee initially followed through on, before being told not to). In both the spirit of compromise, as well to clarify its use, I propose that this rule be slightly modified to allow a motion to reconsider to be used to bring a bill before a committee at a subsequent meeting…
(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). A committee member may move at any time while a committee is in session for reconsideration of any vote taken on the motions specified in rule 12(e)(i) through 12(e)(v) 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. When a committee votes in favor of reconsidering a bill under this rule, the Chair shall place the bill on the agenda of the earliest meeting of the committee where the requirements of rule 12(c) can be satisfied. A motion to reconsider in committee shall not be debated.
This will alleviate the concerns about posting of bills and adequate notice before votes that have been expressed. Note also that this retains the principle that there’s no debate on the motion to reconsider, so motions for reconsideration wouldn’t bog down the meetings for any appreciable period of time (which is exactly why such motions are undebateable). Finally and most importantly, this proposed modification would allow quarter to Representatives who worry that they’ll miss out on important backroom dealing and other perks of hanging out at the Statehouse if they are required to sit through the same meetings that regular citizens and conscientious legislators diligently attend, while restoring the democratic process to committee proceedings that the current House leadership is seeking to actively suppress.

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Phil Hirons, Jr.
Phil Hirons, Jr.
11 years ago

I think you posted this one 13 days early.

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