State Senate to House: Our Relationship Isn’t Working

The State Senate met last Thursday in between blizzards, and Topic A was a debate on the procedural rules that ought to govern the Legislature for the coming two-year session. The House made its rules proposal last month, and in response the Senate made a statement — a unanimous one — that it wants some changes in the ways the Senate and House conduct business together.

A little background. The 5000 or so bills the Legislature considers each session make their first stop at one of the 25 joint House-Senate committees, each of which has jurisdiction over a particular subject matter — Judiciary, Housing, Election Laws, Transportation, etc. The composition of the joint committees gives the House a nearly two-to-one advantage in membership. While this may seem to be a reasonable arrangement in light of the fact that there are 160 House members and 40 Senate members, the practical effect is that no bill moves out of a Joint Committee unless the House believes that it should, or is at least willing, in the interests of comity, to permit it to.

In the Senate’s view, comity has been in very short supply of late. And therefore the Senate is proposing to change the rules so that a majority of the Senate members on the joint committees can vote to approve Senate bills without the support of the House committee members. Similarly, House bills could be approved without the support of the Senate committee members (the Senate would likely point out that this arrangement is the status quo at present).

Senator Mark Montigny of New Bedford, the sponsor of this rule change, explained that the Senate was seeking only equal treatment in the legislative process. The Senate had no desire to be “grand poobah,” he said — a statement suggesting that under the present inequitable arrangement there does exist an Office of the Grand Poobah in the State House (and its number is 356).

The issue of relative power in the joint committees has been simmering for some time. During the last legislative session it played out most contentiously in the process that led, eventually, to the laws that were passed governing the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. On the minimum wage issue, the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development held a hearing in June, 2013. By early November, to the Senate’s frustration, the Committee had still not issued any recommendation. So the Senate, acting under one of its own rules, asked the Senate Committee on Ways and Means to report out a bill for the Senate to consider. The Committee complied, and the Senate debated, amended and passed a minimum wage bill later in November.

Three months later, in February, 2014, not only had the House failed to act on the minimum wage proposal that the Senate had sent over, but also the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development had failed to take action on another issue in need of attention — changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system — on which the Committee had held a hearing the previous May. So again the Senate passed a bill of its own, just as it had with the minimum wage.

Pretty soon the Joint Committees were facing a March 19 deadline for completing action on all the bills before them. That deadline came and went with no action by the Labor Committee on either minimum wage or unemployment insurance. One day after that deadline, however the House chairman of the Labor Committee announced that proposals on both issues were ready. But by then, the Senate had pretty much had enough with procrastination, and it used its power under the rules to prevent the Committee from taking action after its deadline had passed. The Senate’s understandable position was that it had already passed bills on both these subjects and, especially in view of the fact that the deadline for committee action had passed, that the House could simply take up consideration of those Senate bills.

But the House refused to do so, and instead set about finding a way to circumvent the Senate. We can skip over some of the intervening details of the standoff (which are available here) to the finale, when the Senate blinked and agreed to receive the bills that the House had finally passed (which, in substance, were very similar to the Senate’s proposals). In order to advance those bills to final passage, the Senate essentially was required to re-enact the minimum wage and unemployment insurance debates they had already held.

To sum things up, the House used its numerical advantage on the Joint Committee to delay progress on bills that it agreed were high legislative priorities. Then it rejected the action that the Senate had taken in response to its delays (you might say that the Senate had neglected to ask “Mother, may I?”) and forced the Senate to duplicate its prior efforts. No wonder that the body intends not to repeat that deferential performance this session.

The Senate is proposing additional changes to the rules to increase transparency (by requiring committee votes to be posted online within 48 hours) and to decrease the opportunity for dilatory tactics (by requiring committees to finish their work on bills by mid-January instead of mid-March). If the House agrees to these amendments (and today the Speaker proposed a conference committee to resolve the House-Senate differences), the result will likely be greater openness and a restoration of balance of power between the House (whose 160 members represent 40,000 residents each) and the Senate (whose 40 members represent 160,000 residents each). And who knows – it might also affect the dynamics of power within each chamber.

A little comity might be the ideal, but this plan could work too.

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