Rhode Island School of Design

Power Imbalance and Representative Democracy in Rhode Island House of Representatives by Yifan Wang

On January 23rd, Common Cause Rhode Island held its “Demystifying Democracy” at the Dwares Jewish Community Center. Common Cause Rhode Island is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes the openness of representative democracy and educate citizens in Rhode Island. Its “Demystifying Democracy” event specifically focuses on the power imbalance and rules in the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

The amount of power in the hands of the Speaker in the Rhode Island House is immense. The Speaker benefits from the house rules, which is changed every two years. The house rules governs many aspect of the committee. Most importantly, the rules give speaker fully control of the flow of bills and sometimes even the voting outcome. Since the constitution rarely touches state legislatures, and flawed state house rule can turn out to be a serious problem.

At the beginning of the event, John Marion, director of Common Cause Rhode Island, introduced to the audience with the power imbalance issue and legislation vote by presenting a number of charts. In a chart that indicates the percentage of time the speaker loses a floor vote, Rhode Island House of Representative is shown at the very bottom among all the US State Legislatures. 

The Rhode Island house power has long been centralized in the hand of the speaker, and the issue is becoming worse in recent years. Common Cause has been vocal about the issue for  a number of years. One of the handouts given to audience before the event is an article from Providence Journal on the issue by John Marion. Common Cause invited four representatives to the event to share their experience on the issue as well as their effort to change it.

The four representatives are Rebecca Kislak (D), Jared Nunes (D), and Brian Newberry (R), and Stephen Ucci (D). Four representatives all expressed their surprise to the turnout of event. They admitted the subject of the matter is not the most intriguing political topic for public citizens to engage, but the participation was showing more local Rhode Island citizens are paying more attention to the local representative democracy.

Director John Marion and Representative Ucci gave a brief introduction of Mason’s Manual, and the relationship between Constitution, Laws, and rules, which the three should work together as a whole in the House, guiding the legislature to vote on bills. However, the long-time overpower of the Speaker undermines the way system is supposed to work. The Speaker of the Rhode Island House essentially has too much authority on deciding what bill goes to the floor and what bills to pass. A house rule change has been proposed for a long time in order to diminish Speaker’s power, and the four representative are at the front of that change.

During their speeches, Representatives’ tone and their use of words show a certain level of frustration and resentment. Particularly, representative Stephen Ucci is particularly vocal about the current legislation voting situation. He said at one point “Speaker is not the boss. His job is to operate the chamber.” Representative Nunes stated the power of the speaker derives from the house rules. Rhode Island house rules particularly favor the leadership and grant it with authority. 

Director John Marion pointed out house rules change every two year, and the last time it was change is 2017, so 2019 is a crucial year if the house members can united and finally work to balance the power within the house. Representative Ucci once emphasize how flawed written rules can change the entire political climate. He added, “If rules still don’t change, member will lose in every debate.” Republican representative also sides with the democrats,  he said “even some common sense bills couldn’t get through.”

Representative Rebecca Kislak is at forefront of proposing possible rules change. She briefly mentioned a number of possible changes to be voted on this year. For example, the time period for the committee to decide on what to vote is currently set to 24 hours. She and other member of the house propose to extend it to 48 hours. Members also propose changes to the discharge petition, which will allow a bill to be discharged from the floor if more than half of the majority signed. 

Representative Ucci then said: “It is about the people getting involved, to let the leadership know. If the current climate persists, we can be put in a bad position,” he added, “ A lot of people don’t want to go against the speaker or the committee. That’s why we need to put people in position to exchange opinion and make decisions together rather than do things pressure behind the doors.” 

The power imbalance of the Rhode Island shows the important relationship between written and unwritten rules. The two needs to work together to allow democracy to function. If the written rules are flawed and ambiguous, the unwritten rules is highly likely to be overpowered. In the case of RI House, the written rules are not enough to limited the authority of executive branch, and results in the Speaker pressuring committee and controlling the flow of legislation. Vice Versa, if the written rules reach each and every aspect and leave no space for unwritten rules, democracy itself cannot be function. The two needs to be balanced with one another and support one another.

The event essentially points out a weakness point in representative democracy in state legislatures, at least in Rhode Island. Legislatures are supposed to represent the people, and if the power is held in the hand of one person, members are not no longer representing their constituency but others’ personal interests. If that is the case, representative democracy is no neither representative nor democratic, but rather an undemocratic liberalism.

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