Senate’s rules should
bend to public’s demands


A decision is expected tomorrow on changing internal rules that give a single chairperson the power to block legislation.

DEMOCRACY disappears under internal state Senate rules that allow a single committee chairperson to block a piece of legislation despite hearings, debates and the approval of the majority of the Legislature. Democracy is waylaid when a bill is choked off at its inception at the mere whim of any Senate chairperson.

These frustrating practices cheapen the public's investment in the political process and feed the sour perception that you can't fight city hall, or, in this case, the state Capitol. But change may be on its way if public pressure is brought to bear, and a series of hearings on the issue has demonstrated that voters aren't willing to let the unfair rules stand. (See Gathering Place.)

For the first time, the Senate has gotten a earful from the public about how elected leaders run their operations, and tomorrow lawmakers will show whether they listened. Two committees will decide whether to recommend that the Senate institute reforms to end the dictatorial rule of committee chairpersons.

Internal workings have not been subject to public approval before and it remains to be seen if Senate leaders will yield. However, the excessive power of certain members has been criticized by advocacy groups who have watched helplessly as measures they worked hard just to get introduced are bottled up without even being heard. Even some senators have complained about the practice as bills they favor are summarily rejected.

Current rules allow a majority of House and Senate chairpersons of standing committees sitting in conferences to overrule a single committee chairperson's veto of a bill. The problem is that more than half of the bills sent to conferences -- where House and Senate versions can be reconciled -- have only two committee chairpersons, neither of whom can overrule the other's decision to kill a bill. So after winding its way through introduction, hearings, revisions, more hearings and hard-earned approval by a majority of legislators, a bill's fate rests in the hands of one person. This is an outrageous and unacceptable procedure in a democratic society.

Another flagrantly unfair rule allows a chairperson to have a bill assigned to his or her committee despite the fact that the panel may have no jurisdiction. In other words, a bill on education reform could end up in the transportation committee, where a chairperson can stop its advance and keep it from ever seeing the light of day. It is at this level that many worthwhile bills are blocked.

Attempts to loosen the stranglehold of chairpersons predictably have met strident resistance from those who possess the magnified power, but if the public insists on fairness and accountability, if voters press for equality, the Senate will have to submit. No elected official should have dominion over the will of the people.



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