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Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, April 6, 2000

Advantages of
unicameral legislature

CONFERENCE committees are the "third house" of our two-house Legislature -- and the most important house by far. Their assigned task is to reconcile differences between bills that already have passed both the Senate and the House, but without identical wording.

That may seem innocuous, but this is where the real action is. This is where the final deals are cut to shape bills to be sent to the governor to sign or veto.

Savvy committee chairmen often change wording in a bill passed by the other house just to "throw it into conference." A bill in conference is a trading chip to use against other bills: "I'll agree to what you want only if you agree to what I want."

Here the power brokers are at their most powerful.

As many as 200 bills, well over half the final product of any legislative session --and by far the most significant ones, including nearly all spending bills --are "thrown into conference."

When they come out many will contain elements our "Ideal Legislator" will view as good plus other elements he or she will view as bad.

This Ideal Legislator's aye-nay choice on his or her own chamber's floor is all that's permitted. No amendments may be offered. Thus the legislator must either vote for the bad in a conference bill in order to get the good that is in it, or reject the good in order to reject the bad.

If something of great interest to his or her constituency is wrapped into a really bad bill, he or she still may vote aye. The power brokers like it this way and prevail more often than not.

In the past, our Republican minority members have kow-towed to this too many times.

Longer legislative sessions can provide no relief from the logjam of bills thrown into conference in the final week or weeks. Creating the logjam is the desire of the would-be traders -- no matter how long the session.

Requiring public voting in conference committee meetings, as now proposed, is a half-measure only. The logjams will still be there. The trades will be moved to private confabs. And legislators will be stretched even thinner if they actually have to show up at conferences to vote.

Try the arithmetic yourself. Stretch 23 Democratic majority senators plus two Republican minority senators over some 200 bills in conference in the last 10 days of the session.

Try to assure minority representation. The poor Republicans will have to attend perhaps 100 conferences each if just to be present for voting if not for debate.

Even in the majority party, the chairmen of crucial committees like Ways and Means in the Senate and Finance in the House are expected to be in on all money conferences -- and that may run to more than 100 each. It's a near-impossible task if open conference rules oblige them to actually be present.

When so many bills are moved at once even the most conscientious legislator can't really understand all of them and has to apply blind faith to many. Sometimes this backfires as horrible goofs or deliberate connivances are discovered only after the session has adjourned.

There is a simple answer to all this -- a Legislature with a single house. These unicameral legislatures work very well in Great Britain and Japan -- which are unicameral for all practical purposes -- New Zealand, Nebraska, Guam and our county councils for Honolulu, the Big Island, Maui and Kauai.

They save money. They move bills faster. They are more open. They are less apt to overlook sloppy drafting. Calling a bill back to fix it is easier, too.

Legislature Directory
Legislature Bills & Hawaii Revised Statutes

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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