Rod Driver

From The Narragansett Times, July 31, 1991

Unwritten Rules at the Assembly


Rhode Islanders who have watched sessions of the legislature on cable TV may have wondered why bills which come to the House floor almost always pass - usually unanimously and without amendment.

Perhaps it is time to offer some insight into the process. It is really quite simple. Action on the floor of the House has little to do with the merits of a bill, and it has little to do with the official rules of the House.

But it has a lot to do with the unwritten rules:

A team player doesn't need to read the bills or amendments, doesn't need to listen to the debate, and doesn't need to think. All he or she needs do is keep pushing the green button.

A few years ago it was even easier than this. One could lock in the green button at the beginning of each day's session to get an automatic "yea" vote every time the voting machine was activated. But new electronics installed in 1988 does not work this way.

A corollary to all this is the "jack-in-the-box syndrome." To enhance one's reputation as a team player, some believe it helps to jump up and "second" motions to pass bills or to table amendments. You don't need to know what the bills or amendments are about.

And if you are out of the chamber (physically or mentally) when a vote is called for, rush back to vote "yea." You can ask your neighbor later if you like: What did we just vote for?

In 1988 this process led to the passage of a bill which eliminated the requirement that RISDIC-insured credit unions maintain liquidity reserves. General Assembly members were told that the bill would tighten up liquidity-reserve requirements. And practically no one read it.

If any of this is discouraging, hang on. There's more.

In January 1991 the House adopted new reform rules* which provided that the members would receive the bills before they voted, almost a day before. And no more than 40 bills would be considered in one day, with several exceptions.

But by June this new rule was no longer perceived as such a good idea. Someone had decided that it was about time for the General Assembly to adjourn; and it was foreseen that this rule might slow things down.

And, sure enough, one obstructionist member* did want to continue to see the bills before voting on them. So on June 6, the House voted 74 to 13 to suspend the new rules. You don't need a bill, we were told. It will be explained to you.

The very next item considered was a bill on the inspection of school buses. It was "explained" as a measure to tighten up the requirements for inspecting school-bus brakes. What it actually did was to relax the inspections - and this may well have been justified. But had the bill been read and understood, it would not have passed 83 to 1 with no discussion.

The following day the House became very efficient. In a 7-hour session, we passed 122 bills, after reading virtually none of them. Two of these were highly technical 38-page and 124-page bills on banking.

Ready for one more revelation?

It is often suggested that the solution to Rhode Island politics is to defeat the incumbents and put in new faces. Well, on Jan. 1 the House did have 18 new faces: 15 Democrats and 3 Republicans.

About 11 of the 15 new Democrats quickly learned to routinely push the green button.

* The new rules were originally proposed and later supported by yours truly.