Return to First Principles

Democracy at the State House


Across the political spectrum people are advocating for changes to the Rules of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. These Rules govern the process for considering legislation in the House. Under the current Rules, proposed legislation is sent to a House committee. The House Speaker is given the power to appoint all members of House committees, and their chairmen. Committees have hearings to consider legislation and can hold a bill indefinitely for further study so that it never comes to a vote by the entire House. To get legislation to the entire House for a vote without committee approval, a majority of state representatives must sign a petition. When legislation does come out of committee for a vote, often it is in the final days of the legislative session, with little public notice, because the rules requiring public notice have been suspended. Basically, committees appointed by the Speaker decide what legislation will be given a vote. When legislation is finally voted upon it is often with little public notice. The General Assembly should not operate this way.

The power to appoint the members of committees, and select the chairmen who run them is the power to control the legislative process. Today, in the House, that power rests with one person, the Speaker. This power should be disbursed. In the past, the Speaker appointed the members of House committees, but committees elected their own chairman. In 1937, the House Rules were changed to give Speaker James Kiernan the power to appoint the chairmen of House committees. Kiernan used this power to gain control of the Finance Committee from Harry Curvin, the leader of House Democrats loyal to Pawtucket Mayor Thomas McCoy. Kiernan and Governor Robert Quinn became allies against McCoy. On April Fools’ Day, the Finance Committee sent to the House floor legislation stripping McCoy of control over the Pawtucket police, fire and public works departments. A riot broke out, but a week later the McCoy faction agreed to support Quinn’s budget, and the bill stripping McCoy of his power was sent back to committee to die. With the exception of the period from 1993 to 2004, Speakers have retained this power.

The more ability a committee has to avoid voting on legislation, the less likely legislation will get a vote. Today, in the House, committees can hold legislation indefinitely for further study, and to get legislation to the House floor without committee approval, a majority of state representatives must sign a petition. It should be easier for bills to get a vote. From 1993 to 2004, House committees could not simply hold bills indefinitely for further study. Furthermore, from 1991 to 2004, legislation could get to the House floor if 40 percent of the entire House signed a petition. Using both of these rules, Rep. Nicholas Gorham put pressure on House leadership to pass a Separation of Powers constitutional amendment. In 2002, unable to hold Separation of Powers legislation for further study indefinitely, the Judiciary Committee had to vote, and voted against the bill. In the meantime, Gorham began a petition to get the bill out of committee and came close to succeeding. Under pressure, the House leadership agreed to put the Separation of Powers amendment on the ballot and the voters approved it in 2004. But in 2005, after House Republicans allied with dissident House Democrats to oppose the reelection of Speaker William Murphy, the House Rules were changed to require a majority of House members to sign a petition to get a bill out of committee, and committees were expressly allowed to hold bills indefinitely for further study.

The easier it is to suspend rules, the more likely the rules will not be followed. Today, in the House, the Rules can be suspended by an agreement between the House Majority and House Minority Leaders or by a vote of two-thirds of all House members. Instead, the Rules should not be suspended except in case of emergency. In 1976, the General Assembly enacted the Open Meetings Act, which required public bodies, such as city and town councils, to provide public notice 48 hours before voting on a matter unless there was an emergency. The General Assembly is exempt from the Open Meetings Act because of a provision in the state constitution. A constitutional amendment could be submitted to the voters to require the General Assembly to comply with the Open Meetings Law and provide the public with 48 hours notice before voting on legislation. This would be similar to what occurred in 2016, in California, when voters approved by a two to one margin a state constitutional amendment which required the state legislature to publicly post legislation, including amendments, at least 72 hours before a vote unless there was a state of emergency.

The House Rules should be changed back to how they existed prior to 2005 when committees elected their chairman, committees could not hold bills indefinitely, and 40 percent of House members could sign a petition to have a bill go to a vote on the House floor. An additional rule change would be to require committee memberships to be elected by a vote of the entire House, which was a rule followed by the Rhode Island Senate during the most of the 20th century. Lastly, a constitutional amendment should be presented to the voters to require the General Assembly to comply with the Open Meeting Act like other public bodies in Rhode Island.

There has long been dissatisfaction with how the General Assembly operates. For example, in middle of the 20th century, the Providence Journal published cartoons and editorials which depicted state legislators as sheep voting “baa” in favor of the House Rules and compared “rank and file” legislators to “helpless dummies.” Reforms could change this. Until then, the General Assembly will continue to be known as a place run by Democrats, but not run democratically; a public body which passes laws affecting the public with little notice to the public.

Steven Frias, Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, historian and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism.


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democracy at state house? over their dead cold bodies

Tuesday, January 15