Rod Driver

From the Providence Journal, April 26, 2002

The good guys ambushed again


LAST JUNE 28, leaders of the Rhode Island House devised a tricky maneuver to kill a bill by Rep. Nicholas Gorham (R.-Coventry) to begin the process of letting Rhode Islanders vote on "separation of powers." The trickery worked so nicely then that the leaders decided to try it again this month, on April 10, to kill a similar Gorham bill.

If you are a leader of the House and you don't want to even permit debate on a particular bill, here's what you do: Let the bill come to the floor of the House by one means or another. Then, before the proponents can say anything, have Rep. Robert Flaherty (D.-Warwick) jump up and move to send the bill back to committee. If anyone tries to debate this motion, Speaker John Harwood (D.-Pawtucket), with an approving nod from the parliamentarian, declares that Flaherty's motion is "not debatable." And the majority of the members dutifully push their green buttons to dispose of the unwanted bill.

But a motion to send a bill back to committee most certainly is debatable! I mentioned this in a column in The Journal last Aug. 5 ("In the legislature, forward to the past") about last year's subterfuge. The rules of the House describe the motion to "commit" (send back to committee) in Rules 21 and 22. And Rule 23 lists the motions which are not debatable. The motion to commit is not on that list.

The rules of the House do not cover every conceivable parliamentary question. Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure governs the proceedings when Mason does not conflict with the rules of the House. And Mason's rule 388 says that the motion to refer to a committee is debatable -- but only as to whether or not the bill should be sent back to committee. (Roberts Rules of Order says the same thing.) So the supporters of separation of powers could not have debated the underlying issue. But they should have had the right to point out that Rhode Islanders voted for separation of powers by a landslide margin of 2 to 1 in a nonbinding referendum in 2000, and it would be irresponsible to again deny discussion and a vote on the bill in the House by kicking it back to committee.

Had the proponents of Gorham's bill anticipated that the trickery of 2001 would be repeated in 2002, and had they studied the rules in advance, the correct response would have been to "appeal from the ruling" of the speaker and let the entire membership vote on the issue of debatability.

But then, another problem would probably have arisen. Last June 21, on another subject, Rep. Michael Pisaturo (D.-Cranston) sought to amend the state budget. He tried to put a freeze on legislative hiring. The speaker then ruled that a motion for a hiring freeze was "not germane" to the budget (if you can believe that). Pisaturo correctly appealed that ruling. But before the debate on the appeal could begin, the speaker declared that the motion to appeal was "not debatable." This ruling too was completely contrary to Mason. (See Rule 232.) But the paliamentarian endorsed it.

Legislators tend to assume that they don't each need to become an expert on the rules because the parliamentarian surely knows the rules and will represent them correctly. What they may not realize is that, if he wants to keep his job, a parliamentarian's first responsibility is to tell the speaker what the speaker wants to hear.

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