UPDATE: House spokesman Larry Berman said the proposed rule change was a “drafting error”. Read more here.
The leadership of the Rhode Island House of Representatives is proposing a drastic change to the House rules which will make it nearly impossible to amend the budget that House leaders come up with. This is undemocratic and should be stopped.
On Friday, a bill was quietly introduced in the RI House and was immediately put on the fast track with a hearing on Wednesday (4:30 Wednesday in Room 135 of the State House). The bill, H5293, modifies the House rules and in particular the rules about passing the state budget. It states that once the House Finance Committee has finished making its version of the state budget, any amendment to the budget by other representatives will need a 2/3 majority of the House before it can even be considered, unless the amendment had already been filed well before the House Finance Committee issued its version of the budget. So if you’re an ordinary House representative who looks at the version of the state budget that comes out of House Finance, and you see something you don’t like there, it will be impossible for you to try to amend the House Finance Committee’s budget because there’s no way you can submit an amendment on time.
This means that Rhode Islanders will have no way to change whatever budget the House Finance Committee decides to put out, because you won’t be able to get any of the other representatives to propose an amendment. In theory a representative who’s not on House Finance could offer an amendment to the budget before the House Finance Committee has even officially produced its version, but it would be hard to do that because you don’t know what’s in House Finance’s budget until it comes out. Setting a deadline for amendments that’s so unreasonably early is a way to keep other people from having much of a voice.
One reason why things are going badly in our state is because power over the state budget is in the hands of only a few politicians. The governor submits a first version of the budget to the RI House and Senate, and the House Finance Committee is expected to hold hearings on the different parts of the budget and then issue a revised version of the budget. So after holding hearings, the House Finance Committee makes its own version of the budget behind closed doors — in practice, the House Speaker and other top insiders have a lot of control over what is and isn’t in the version of the budget that comes out of House Finance. But once House Finance issues its version of the budget, that is almost always what ends up being the budget for the state of Rhode Island. It’s already difficult for other members of the House to make amendments to the budget, and the Senate and governor usually accept what House Finance produces without trying to change or veto it. Still, at least for now people have the ability to propose amendments to the state budget, and that allows the public to put a little pressure on state leaders on key issues. Notable amendments have been offered on investigating 38 Studios, on truck tolls, and on other important issues. Last year the one budget amendment that came closest to passing was an amendment to save low-income disabled people and low-income seniors from a bus fare hike that was targeted specifically at them. This bus fare hike targeted at Rhode Island’s most vulnerable is still getting strong opposition from the general public, but state leaders have shown that they want to push the fare hike through, and making budget amendments difficult would be one way to keep the people from having much of a voice.
It should be clear that this undemocratic rule change is coming from top leadership. The rule change that was just introduced, H5293, was sponsored by the chair of the House Rules Committee (Rep. Corvese) and four members of House leadership (Rep. Shekarchi, Rep. Edwards, Rep. Blazejewski, and Rep. Marshall). Every January after election years the Rules Committee issues a leadership-approved set of changes to the rules, which is what this bill is. These rule changes always keep the leadership in control of what happens in the House. In fact, the reason why the House Speaker is the most powerful politician in Rhode Island, even though voters didn’t elect him, is because the House rules have been constructed to give power to leadership rather than to the individual representatives who voters elect. So, the leadership is trying to grab a little more power this way and stop people from being able to even have a debate on the House floor over the most outrageous things in the House budget.
To me this seems like a sign that House leadership is getting weaker — we all know that House leadership is increasingly getting pressured both from progressives and from Republicans, who are sometimes even in alliance together against corrupt insiders. A truly powerful House leadership would be able to make a show of allowing free debates and amendments while still pushing their proposals through. In the past, House leaders were able to pass the budgets they wanted without this rule, so trying to put this rule in shows that they have reason to expect more resistance. This rule change definitely should be resisted — the bill H5293 is poorly drafted and has other bad things, but the big problem with it is that it attempts to block anyone else from amending the budget. Here is how the bill tries to hinder budget amendments, changing rule 14(e) by adding the words “in Committee” at the end:
No amendment which is intended to make a substantive change in the budget bill may be offered other than by the Chair of the finance committee, except with the agreement of two-thirds (2/3) of the members present, unless the text thereof shall have been submitted to the Legislative Council and made available to the members not less than two (2) calendar days prior to the day on which the budget bill shall be in order for consideration [added: in Committee].
I have been talking to good-government advocates and others about this since I noticed it Friday night, and knowledgeable people who care about good government are opposed to this change. It seems that a coalition may be forming against this rule change. Whether we win or lose, it’s good to show that these power grabs can be resisted.
(This article has been edited by the author after it was published, making a few minor wording changes to clarify what was meant.)