Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal, August 5, 2001

In the legislature, forward to the past


ANYONE WHO SERVED in the Rhode Island General Assembly 10 years ago should have felt right at home with this year's proceedings. Bills unwanted by legislative leaders died without even a vote in committee. Other bills, favored by the leaders, appeared to come from nowhere on the last day of the session, bypassed the committees and sailed through the House and Senate to become law.

There appeared to be no limit to the number of bills considered in a day. Rules of procedure were ignored or violated. The big key to success or failure of a bill was the name of its sponsor. For success, the sponsor should be someone who regularly votes with the leadership rather than an independent thinker.

During the first five months of the year, the General Assembly sent only 80 bills to the governor. Of the 500 bills eventually sent, no fewer than 300 passed during the final two days of the session. By then, with no air conditioning, lawmakers were hot and tired and wanted to go home. Most didn't know what they were voting on and didn't seem to care.

Yet an innocent observer watching the proceedings on Capitol TV or reading the House or Senate journals might have assumed that legislators actually knew what the bills said.

To understand what was really happening, you have to know how to interpret a couple of expressions: (1) When the Journal of the House or Senate says a bill was "read," that's nonsense! About the only things ever "read" in the House or Senate are resolutions of congratulations and condolence.

(2) When, during the debate on a bill, a representative says, "I don't have a copy of the bill," this usually means no one has a copy -- except perhaps the floor manager for the bill and the leader of the chamber. In the evening of the final day, it probably also means that none of the dozen bills before or after that one have been distributed to the people who are dutifully voting them into law.

Here are some examples of the legislature in action. On June 21, during the House "debate" on the state budget, amendments offered by the leadership passed with little or no discussion. Amendments offered by representatives not part of the "team" were overwhelmingly rejected.

Rep. Charles Levesque (not considered part of the leadership team) offered an amendment to require annual independent audits of the legislature. His proposal was defeated 24 to 69. The 24 voting for mandatory audits were Representatives Ajello, Amaral, Mabel Anderson, Anguilla, Benson, Cicilline, Dennigan, DeSimone, Gorham, Lanzi, Levesque, Lima, Long, Montanaro, W. H. Murphy, Picard, Pisaturo, Savage, Scott, Shavers, Simonian, Smith, Story and Wasylyk.

Then Representatives Michael Pisaturo and Steven Smith proposed a freeze on legislative hiring. But before they could explain, Rep. Rene Menard raised a "point of order," suggesting that the amendment was "not germane." This apparently took Speaker John Harwood by surprise. (What could be more germane to the budget than a hiring freeze?) Forty seconds passed before the speaker agreed that the amendment was "not germane."

Representative Pisaturo then sought a vote of the House by appealing the ruling of the chair. The speaker and the parliamentarian declared that an appeal was "not debatable." (On the contrary, the Rules of the House and Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure agree that such an appeal is debatable. In fact, there are hardly any circumstances in which one person can prevent debate.) Without discussion, Pisaturo's appeal was rejected 81 to 12.

The 12 with the courage to vote against the speaker's ruling were Representatives Aiken, Bierman, DeSimone, Gorham, Levesque, Lima, Montanaro, Pisaturo, Scott, Simonian, Smith and Wasylyk.

On June 28, the final day, the House and Senate considered 250 bills. In the final hours, members were not even given copies of the bills.

At one point, Rep. Frank Montanaro pointed out that he didn't have copies of two bills under consideration. So the speaker gave him a couple of minutes to look at them. While he was looking, another four bills flew by unchallenged. Most representatives seemed unconcerned that they hadn't seen the bills. They just voted for them.

When Montanaro suggested that a complicated 20-page bill ought to be distributed to the members, the speaker responded, "I don't know if we're going to have time, Frank, to have a bunch of bills passed out."

No legislator stood up to say, "This whole business is a sham; let's come back next week and do things properly." When the House took up a bill expanding the "prevailing-wage law," Rep. Joseph Scott expressed concerns about rising costs for taxpayers. He asked the floor manager of the bill what the prevailing wages are. The floor manager had no idea. The House then passed the bill 57 to 8.

By contrast, when the leadership dislikes a bill, it is unlikely to ever get to the floor.

Here's an example: Many Americans are alarmed about the influence of money from powerful political action committees. But people can't believe it when you tell them that in Rhode Island, taxpayers are actually compelled to enhance contributions from PACs.

If a PAC gives $500 to a candidate qualified for "matching funds," the taxpayers must give the candidate another $1,000. If a PAC gives $1,000, the taxpayers involuntarily give the candidate an extra $1,500. A bill to end this practice was scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But at the last minute, committee chairman Sen. Joseph Montalbano announced that the hearing on that bill was canceled. Instead, the bill would be sent to a special commission on campaign-finance reform. However, that commission busied itself with questions of how candidates spend campaign funds, not how they raised money.

When asked about ending compulsory taxpayer enhancement of political action committee contributions, commission chairman Roger Begin simply declared that he had decided not to address that bill.

That's how easy it is to kill a bill in the Senate.

Stifling a bill in the House requires a somewhat different procedure, because under House rules a bill's sponsor is entitled to a committee vote if he or she requests it.

Here's one way of solving that "problem": In a non-binding referendum last November, Rhode Islanders voted two-to-one for a Constitutional Convention to take up the important question of "separation of powers." So, in February, Rep. Nicholas Gorham introduced a bill to begin the process of getting an official decision on holding a convention. But the House Judiciary Committee failed to vote on Gorham's bill. House rules provide that, in such a case, on request from the sponsor, "the Speaker shall order the immediate discharge of the bill or resolution from a committee to the House floor." Gorham sent this request to the speaker in May, but nothing happened.

So on June 28, he renewed his request on the House floor. Suddenly, and apparently by prearrangement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Flaherty moved to "recommit" the bill to his committee. The speaker declared that Flaherty's motion was "not debatable" (again, contrary to the rules). And by 58 to 25, the House voted not to even discuss the question of a constitutional convention.

The unintimidated 25 were Representatives Ajello, Amaral, Mabel Anderson, Bierman, Cicilline, Dennigan, DeSimone, Fleury, Gorham, Levesque, Lima, Long, Montanaro, Mumford, W. H. Murphy, Picard, Pisaturo, Rabideau, Savage, Scott, Smith, Story, Trillo, Wasylyk and Watson.

When a bill is sponsored by the "leadership," all technical problems disappear. After 6 p.m., the final day of the session, House leaders introduced two brand-new bills. One would let the Economic Development Corporation sell $35 million in "revenue bonds" for a private company's construction project. The other would let the Resource Recovery Corporation sell $20.7 million in revenue bonds for a new building at the Central Landfill, in Johnston.

Neither bill had received a vote in committee, but both passed the House easily. (When Rep. Brock Bierman asked to see the map showing where the landfill building would be, he was told that he could look at the map -- after the bill passed.) These two bills were sent to the Senate, where they passed after midnight.

In addition to the 300 bills passed by the legislature during the last two days of the session, another 100 bills approved earlier (some as far back as May) were held back by legislative leaders rather than being sent to Governor Almond. Thus, 400 bills went to the governor on July 5 -- giving his staff only six days to study them and decide which should be vetoed before they automatically became law.

Why does the General Assembly behave this way? Why don't the House and Senate get serious early in the session so that bills can be passed or defeated in an orderly manner and those passed are not dumped in the governor's office all at once? And if the leaders must delay hundreds of bills to June 28, why is it then so urgent that the session end on June 28?

The problems arise from the members' obedience to unwritten rules. For example, nothing in the written rules prevents a committee member from moving passage of a bill in his or her committee. But it just isn't done unless the committee chair suggests it. And the committee chair won't suggest it without approval from "upstairs" -- i.e., from the leaders of the House or Senate.

Holding up bills undoubtedly encourages the sponsors of those bills to remain "cooperative."

The House and Senate also play the game of "hostage." The House delays final passage of Senate bills to make sure that the Senate passes certain favored House bills, and vice versa.

Until Rhode Island voters demand responsible actions from their legislators, there is little reason to expect improvement.

Rod Driver, a state representative from 1987 to 1994, is chairman of Operation Clean Government's legislative committee.