Rhode Island School of Design

The Unwritten Rules in Rhode Island’s Speaker Dilemma by Lars Barstad

The state of Rhode Island has a severely imbalanced distribution of power within its House of Representatives. Specifically, the Speaker of the House never loses a vote. I only recently learned about this issue from attending an open meeting organized by Common Cause’s Demystifying Democracy at the Dwares Jewish Community Center on January 23rd. The specific issue announced to be covered by the night’s event was “Understanding the Rules of the Rhode Island House”. Common Cause Rhode Island, the organizing group, is self-described as a nonpartisan, grassroots organization that aims to serve the public interest and empower the people by giving them a handle in the political process. It was originally founded as a citizens lobby in 1970 and continues today with a focus on helping the people on five specific government issues, namely, voting and elections, open government, judicial selection, ethics, and separation of powers. Their website is www.commoncause.org/ri .

Now, I would never have guessed this was an issue within Rhode Island’s administration for many reasons, the primary one being the fact I’m not a resident of the state nor any nearby. I can’t really blame myself for my ignorance. However, I’m glad I attended the meeting both because it showcased a transparency through communication between government and citizen that I never expected to see — I enormously appreciate witnessing it — and because it provided me with yet another example of the issue of unwritten rules I’ve been reading about for my American Government class.

At the very beginning of the session, I was informed that Common Cause has been focusing on the issue of balancing the branches of government for a long time. The issue of the Speaker is also a kind of power imbalance, but at a state level, and so falls under their area of concern. As the gathered panel of representatives from the House would tell me, the power is concentrated in one office, that of the Speaker, within the legislature of Rhode Island’s House of Representatives. The percentage of times the Speaker in different chambers loses a vote is zero percent in Rhode Island versus a twenty-five percent of the time in some states.  It is the lowest percentage of any state in the US, and a percentage that small–really it is nonexistent–is highly concerning.

Common Cause took measures to provide a balanced representatives. The four representatives who took part in the event’s panel were democratic Rep. Rebecca M. Kislak of district 4, democratic Rep. Stephen R. Ucci, republican Rep. Brian C. Newberry of district 48, and former democratic representative Jared R. Nunes Democrat of district 25. Lasty, John Marion acted as the questioner and guided the discussion.

A few interesting things came up as the panel took the stage. The first being the apparent initial tension between the republican and democrat representatives. I know that partyism is a strong source of divisive prejudice in America, but I don’t know to what degree that’s true here in Rhode Island because every state is different. However, the tension wore off quickly and the representatives neglected possible prejudice in order to discuss the issue as well as to agree with, support, and even compliment each others’ work during the event. The second noteworthy early revelation was that these representatives were skipping the annual House of Representatives’ ethics training. Therefore, they neglected their official events in favor of being available for the regular citizen. Lastly, district 4 is the district the event was held in, and some of the attendees are Kislak’s constituents. It was cool to see so much civic participation and the involvement on both sides, especially when the representatives were open for questions at the end of the event and some assertive citizens took the chance to get direct with their administration through their representatives.

Attendees were also provided with two articles about the issue. Before the discussion could begin in full, Marion directed the attendees’ attention to our printed handout detailing Common Cause’s mission and two articles related to the discussion for that night’s meeting. One is titled “The Seat of Power”, by Philip Eil, published April 4th 2014 . The other is “Speaker in R.I. has too much power” by John Marion, published on february 24th 2016.

As the representatives began talking, they mentioned that the issue of the Speaker has become increasingly obvious to the state’s democratic political sphere in the past couple years — an issue the republican side was apparently already aware of — and that Rhode Island administration knows that the issue lies in the written and unwritten rules of the state. Representative Ucci described how the House of Representatives relies on Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure. Manuals like Mason’s and Robert’s Rules of Order develop and are adopted into government because our Constitution fails to provide instructions. Every little thing is not laid out. Many things are left ambiguous. The manual sets parameters for how the administrative group will run. It allows people to do their jobs, essentially. Rules result in process and, in turn, numbers. According to Ucci, “Everything in government is numbers and how you arrive at that. Some is based on rules, some is based on the Constitution, some is based on the law. The government runs based on numbers: the speaker, election, votes, majorities, etc. The budget passes with 50 votes as per the Constitution.” Some numbers are determined by unwritten rules, some are based on the Constitution and Statute.

One example representative Ucci gave about a change in the written rules was a change made in 2008 after a tie vote (32-32) in the House floor. According to Mason’s Manual before the amendment, “In the event of a tie vote, the question shall be lost”. Also, according to the manual, as there was no prevailing side (no majority), the matter could not be reconsidered. The body had to uphold that the matter could not be reconsidered because of the book. Now, as of 2008, it’s been changed so that the prevailing side in a tie is the “no” vote and the issue can be reconsidered rather than dropped.

There are, naturally, disputes over the rules. However, the panel of representatives agreed that there needs to be a change in the written rules to mitigate the issues caused by unwritten rules and the mentality they’ve caused in representatives. According to the panel, the “culture” of the House is that the speaker shouldn’t lose a vote. But, of course, there still needs to be a way to get legislation out there, past the speaker, that can be voted down. Lots of bills with good ideas never get voted on or brought to light because the speaker turns them down. Ucci admitted that the mentality within the House needs to change and representatives need to stand up to the speaker and leadership and the unwritten rules of this particular chamber. Representatives need to realize that it’s not an attack on leadership if someone disagrees with the speaker. It all comes down to the fact that the representatives are afraid to vote against the speaker because of an unwritten rule.

The republican representative said it when he argued that “the rules do not exist so that the minority can get its way”. Rather, the rules exist so that the losing side thinks it’s fair. The problem is that the minority in Rhode Island’s general assembly does not find the process to be fair. The power of the speaker in RI is not strictly Constitutional. It’s given to the speaker through the other members of the chamber through unspoken agreement and it unfairly favors the majority party.

Rep. Kislak was on the reform caucus.The caucus was about coming together as a party to say they wanted more open and transparent processes within the House to make it so that all could know and feel that the process is fair. They voted for new leadership but lost the vote. But, as Kislak noted, “It’s not about the person but the position”. The power and the rules are the problem. They came up with three or four ideas to change the unwritten rules with written ones. Their goal was to be as effective as possible. The ideas were: first, that bills would stay live for 2 years (an efficiency change); second, that there be 48 hours to post amended bills to create the ability to review the bill in question and come up with changes; third, to allow the suspension of rules through a ⅔ majority instead of through three people; and fourth, to loosen the limitations on signature collection and introducing a bill. In the end, there has been an amendment change. Now, amendments to proposed bills are made public 24 hours before they are voted on. However, obviously and unfortunately, the issue of the Speaker still remains at large.

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