Monday, April 23, 2001


By Ed Case

Veto power
is secretly restored
to chairmen

The maxim that seemingly innocuous actions can have huge consequences applies in spades to the Legislature.

During these crucial two weeks, the House and Senate try to resolve differences in bills that have passed both bodies. But an obscure amendment to conference committee procedures, negotiated secretly and unilaterally announced last Monday by Senate President Bunda and House Speaker Say, demonstrates that maxim.

The amendment provides any chairman of any conference committee with a unilateral veto over the conference result. Thus, if all House and Senate members of a conference committee save one -- the chairman -- agree, that result does not prevail unless that sole chairman agrees. This is obviously contrary to the basic legislative principle of majority rule, gives individual members (and their particular special-interest supporters) the power to block or weaken majority initiatives, and lights a fire under the kind of last-minute dealmaking for which the Legislature is so despised publicly.

By way of background, the debate over to what extent chairmen can control the legislative outcome is as old as legislatures themselves. Any committee-based legislature relies on a certain level of wisely exercised discretion of the chairman to function well.

Unfortunately, the Legislature of Hawaii has demonstrated a long pattern of abuse of that discretion, particularly where majority-supported reforms opposed by minority special interests have been blocked by sympathetic chairmen. Perhaps nowhere else has this been as true in recent years as in government reforms opposed by public employee unions and chairmen like Sen. Brian Kanno (D-Ewa Beach-Makakilo-Waipahu) and Rep. Dwight Takamine (D-Hamakua-N.Hilo-N. Kohala).

Nor are other chairmen or legislators blameless. Like the U.S. Senate's filibuster, which no senator supports when pet bills are subjected to it, but which most senators want to preserve for their own use, legislators in Hawaii have gone along with the old system.

At the beginning of the 1999-2000 Legislature, following particularly abusive actions by chairmen in the previous Legislature, a reform in conference committee procedures was implemented. That change said that a majority of House and Senate conferees could report a conference measure to their respective bodies for final action. While not eliminating all abuse, the amendment produced better, more representative results.

At the beginning of the current Legislature, the majority-rule change was continued in House-Senate conference procedures. In early April, however, President Bunda proposed the chairman-veto change to "ensure that there is consensus among all chair(men) when reporting out a measure in amended form." Speaker Say agreed.

At risk are a range of bills in conference with majority support but strong single-chair opposition. Moreover, chairmen holding veto power can negotiate the release of their veto against otherwise unjustified results on their pet bills.

House and Senate members have asked their respective leaders to rescind the change and return to majority rule.

Ed Case (D-Manoa) represents the 23rd
District in the state House of Representatives.

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