If you watch the General Assembly, you could get the impression that you’re seeing a genuine deliberative body in action. Committee members hear public testimony on a bill, they ask questions, they debate the bill and they vote to recommend …
If you watch the General Assembly, you could get the impression that you’re seeing a genuine deliberative body in action. Committee members hear public testimony on a bill, they ask questions, they debate the bill and they vote to recommend its passage or not. When a bill comes to the floor of the House (and/or Senate) there is further debate followed by an informed vote.
This is not what’s happening!
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.
No one would vote for this motion if they were thinking and acting independently: (1) You can’t have “further study” before you’ve had any study! And (2) passage of the motion to “hold for further study” actually kills a bill – unless the Speaker of the House later authorizes a real committee vote. This is the result of House Rule 13(e) and it is one key to making the Speaker “the most powerful official in R.I. government.”
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.
More important than the public hearing are private discussions between the Speaker and lobbyists wanting particular bills passed or killed. This is important because commercial lobbyists make generous campaign contributions to the Speaker and other leaders. Then when a bill of interest to one of their clients is being considered, lobbyists head for the Speaker’s office to make their case.
Now and then the Committee Chair meets with the Speaker to go over bills in his or her committee. The Speaker decides which bills should get a real committee vote and come to the floor. The Committee Chair relays the information to the committee members and they vote for the approved bills. Other bills remain “held for further study.”
Nothing in the R.I. Constitution gives the Speaker of the House all this power. No law does either. It follows because representatives are eager to be “team players.” They know that if their own agendas are to prosper they should follow their leaders. New members quickly learn this and fall into line. And Committee Chairs know that to continue being Committee Chairs they should do what the Speaker expects.
Bills which come to the floor for a vote have been approved at the highest level. So representatives routinely vote for them without reading, listening or thinking. Sometimes legislators vote for bills they know are defective.
Take the latest legislative session for example. From January through May of 2010 the General Assembly was rather relaxed. We passed assorted resolutions, congratulated basketball teams and anointed dozens of laypersons to conduct specific marriages.
Then came June! Suddenly we were passing bills by the dozens without even looking at them.
We passed 100 bills per day on June 8 and 9. Many bills were quite technical and many were drastically changed at the last minute by virtually-unseen floor amendments. Most representatives didn’t even see the bills, except perhaps for a few seconds on a computer monitor. (The few seconds of viewing only happened if a representative was quick enough to call up the bill and/or amendments on the monitor before a vote was taken.)
But what about bills which never come to the floor?
One example: Tobacco companies are losing customers to heart disease and cancers caused by use of their products. To replace these lost customers they must get young people addicted. In Rhode Island, illegal sales of tobacco to children under 18 are punished by fines – slaps on the wrist compared to the profits from tobacco sales. A 2010 bill would have imposed a more meaningful penalty for repeated sales to minors. It wasn’t a prison sentence. For a third conviction, bill 7211 called for a 14-day tobacco-license suspension (as had been the case before 2005). The bill was enthusiastically endorsed by lung, heart, cancer and youth organizations and Health Department officials. But it was opposed by one or more lobbyists for the tobacco industry and retailers. So it was “held for further study” in the House judiciary committee. Later I asked the Committee Chair, Rep. David Caprio, when the committee would vote on this bill. He replied with a straight face “We already had a vote. The bill was held for further study.”
A resident of Richmond, Rod Driver served as a State Representative from 1987 to 1994 and again in 2009 and 2010.
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