A broken legislative process.
We’d like to think that when Idaho’s representatives and senators introduce bill ideas to the legislature on behalf of their constituents that every bill gets a fair hearing. Certainly in a Republican dominated legislature, surely, at least, the Republican legislators have their ideas fairly debated?
Well, it’s not the reality. I have first-hand experience with the authoritarian nature of the committee process. And, unfortunately, I am only slightly exaggerating by using that word.
of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite.
Is Authoritarian the right word?
We know there is a problem because every year dozens of Republican legislators cannot get hearings in committee for their bills. And in the lawmaking process, that is where bills start – in committee.
Usually a legislator will represent their constituents or the people of Idaho and have a bill idea drafted. They will take their bill to the committee assigned to such topics, and the committee chair will schedule their bill for a print hearing. At this first step in the legislative process, the committee has the opportunity to print the bill and give it a bill number, or the committee can quickly dispense with and kill the bill.
Until a print hearing, the public will have had no opportunity to know of a bill and its contents.
If the bill is printed, the next step is to get a full hearing on that bill in the committee. At that hearing, public testimony and debate occurs, and the bill is either sent to the floor of the Senate or the House, or it is killed by the committee.
But there is one kink in the machine. Many times, before this process ever gets started, committee chairmen practice the right of veto with no appeal. Without a written rule, they simply operate by the practice that if they don’t like a legislator’s bill proposal, they simply say “No”. And the bill never sees the light of day. It is “put in the drawer” (or thrown in the trash) with no print hearing.
The committee chair is basically denying the ability for that bill to be brought to the committee at all. The legislator’s only option then is to file the bill early in the session as a “personal bill” – in other words with their name alone on the bill rather than a committee’s name attached to the bill.
And the practice of the legislature is that all of the personal bills get routed to the Ways and Means Committee, never to get a hearing, and they die the death
This Bill-killing Practice is un-American.
No average legislator has the power to single-handedly kill legislative ideas. Even the governor cannot kill bills without possible redress. When the governor vetoes a bill, the House and the Senate can take a vote to override his veto, and the bill would then become law even though the governor vetoed it.
The current practice of the Idaho legislature puts complete control of the lawmaking process in the hands of a single individual – the committee chairman. This concentration of power in one person is contrary to the ideals of the American Republic.
To defend this practice, I have recently watched House and Senate leadership, and even one of my own representatives, say that this kill-bill ability of chairmen is to protect the process from bills that are not fully ripe or that have not gained consensus.
I have first-hand experience with a bill in the drawer for FOUR years now, and in my case it is only political reasons that my bill is not heard.
In 2018, representatives Heather Scott and John Green attempted a bill that I wrote that would outlaw all abortion in the state of Idaho. Abortion bills are assigned to the House State Affairs committee, and the chair at the time, Steve Harris, gave me 10 reasons why he would not hear the bill. Here are the top two that were on his list:
1) Protect the caucus.
What does that mean? Well, murder by abortion is a “controversial” policy subject. The Republicans in the House and in the Senate are the “caucus”, and the committee chair wants to protect his party’s members from having votes on record on controversial issues.
Because at the next election cycle their vote could be used against them.
I kid you not – this is one of the chair’s top concerns, and he even put it on a piece of paper as a top concern. See, he is fine allowing bills that really do nothing significant to abortion in the state, but a bill that would actually outlaw abortion? Well, that is sure to get the opposition fired up, and then some of the Republicans might lose election.
And to some extent he is right that it would mean the Republicans would have to fight more vigorously to defend their seats – this happened after a controversial abortion vote in 1990, when several members lost re-election over the topic. But, if the Republicans are in the majority, for what purpose are they in power if not to stop murder in the state?
2) Gain the support of the lobbyists.
While you and I go to work everyday and raise our families all across Idaho, for three months of the year there are hundreds of professionals called lobbyists roaming the halls of the capitol building in Boise practicing their trade. Their trade is to fashion policy and then establish a relationship with your legislator, put on dinners, take them to lunch, and get your legislator on board with the professional lobbyist’s policy agenda.
In the case of abortion, there are no less than THREE professional lobbying organizations plying the halls of the capitol. And what the committee chair has told me for four years in a row is that until I get the professionals to agree to back my bill, then my bill will not be heard. In other words, the lowly citizen, and in my case, the thousands of Idahoans who have signed onto my bill idea, take a backseat to the professionals.
House Rules and Senate Rules Allow for Ways Around the Chairmen
Last week, representative Ron Nate attempted to call a personal bill to the House floor on grocery sales tax repeal. However, the current members of the House voted for the establishment and the status quo by a vote of 49-20. They did not want to change the current process.
On a vaccine related bill, they then had another opportunity this week to hear a bill that a committee chair killed. 55 out of 70 House members voted to sustain the committee chair’s kill authority.
Why? Well, you have to remember that these legislators want committee chairs to hear their bills, and so maybe they don’t want to show their upset with the authoritarian system so as not to offend these chairs.
In order for things to change, enough legislators are going to have to band together to demand change. Idahoans deserve this change.
If we can get to the point where all bills are fairly heard, then if a committee doesn’t like a bill idea, the committee can move to table the bill in a matter of minutes. There are a myriad of parliamentary maneuvers to kill a bill, but at least then it will have been the decision of a committee of the legislature, rather than the authoritarian exercise of just ONE legislator.
So, don’t believe any legislator who declares that the establishment’s status quo ability of chairs to single-handedly kill bills is the only efficient way to run the legislative process. That is simply not true.
Just yesterday, Representative Ron Nate attempted under Rule 17 to bring a bill to the House floor in response to the broken committee process. Here is his debate: