Rhode Island School of Design

Demystifying Democracy— Seeking Transparency in Rhode Island’s Legislative Process by Amy Wang

With a series of open events, Common Cause Rhode Island has taken the initiative to clarify the state’s legislative processes to the general public. One such event was a moderated panel discussion held at the Dwares Jewish Community Center (DJCC) on the evening of January 23, 2019, in which Four Rhode Island House Representatives, Representative Rebecca Kislak, Representative Brian Newberry, Representative Jared Nunes, and former representative Stephen Ucci opened up about the rules and procedures of the House. Though I was unable to physically attend, I was able to watch a video recording of the event, posted online for public access by Common Cause.

Demystifying Democracy panel (left to right): Rep. Rebecca Kislak, Rep. Brian Newberry, Rep. Jared Nunes, and former Rep. Stephen Ucci discuss House rules.

While I do think organizations like Common Cause Rhode Island, which aim to keep a level of openness and accountability in government are admirable and essential in their cause, and that this particular Demystifying Democracy initiative made me more aware of the procedures, it also left me more unsure of how I, and other citizens, can cooperate with the institutions of government to advance toward a more effective, efficient, and fair democratic system.

It is important to first acknowledge that this event does the first step to encouraging a better democracy well. Exposure and transparency keep the people feeling informed and more willing to trust the system and their representatives. Rep. Kislak  and former Rep. Ucci spoke in great detail about rules, how they are implemented, how they are changed, and where they can possibly be found. Rules are set every two years, in line with the bi-annual elections. They can be changed whenever, so long as someone proposes amendment and it goes through. Former Rep. Ucci refers to the Mason’s Rules, or the Mason’s Manuel of Legislative Procedure, which the Rhode Island House uses to form its own guidelines for how the chamber should organize and function. These are all good, solid facts, yes; however, we must ask: To what end is this transparency and information exposure? Of course, to responsible citizens who subscribe to the democratic institution and the mission of constantly improving it , access to information is not an ultimate end. The next question in line for us is: How can we effectively utilize the information to the end of political participation?

The next step here, thus, is what is lacking: prompting political engagement by the common citizen. A major thing this event, “Understanding the Rules of the Rhode Island House,” brought to my attention were the precise reasons why government transparency and openness to the general to the public is so difficult the achieve; that is, the conventions, rules, and culture of each piece (in this case, the Rhode Island House of Representatives) are not only many but also quite nuanced and complicated. We spoke earlier this month extensively on the topic of rules, both spoken and unspoken, that dictate the way the government runs. As this panel’s main focus was rules, the four present Representatives touched on several formal and (what I found more interesting) informal rules, or what Representative Nunes called, the typical culture and conventions of the House. Both Reps. Nunes and Newberry revealed to the audience a common unspoken convention that they both consider a bit of a hindrance: the idea that the Speaker of the House should not lose the vote. This is an issue because it creates reluctance in the House to vote no—Rep. Nunes mentions that many fear a vote no will be seen as a sleight against the leader.  It also implies a deeper problem; because members are unwilling to vote no, they often choose to abstain from voting, or even prevent bills from ever getting out of committee and to the floor, meaning the legislative process becomes obstructed, or at least stunted. Like the panel states, the process of changing written rules is a relatively uncomplicated one. The process of altering these less concrete, silently agreed upon norms (like the above mentioned hesitancy to vote no that in turn prevents the approval of bills) is much more difficult. It is not only that Representatives do not wish to express dissent, but also that the matter of passing legislature requires a delicate balance; quick enough to be productive, yet slow enough to be prudent.

Unfortunately, I find this information is only useful in eliciting sympathy to the complex and slow process of lawmaking. The common citizen cannot really strive to help this system; it is something to be resolved amongst the Representatives themselves.

At the end of the day, I concede that the main goal of this specific Demystifying Democracy event was to help the public understand better the way the House functions and key factors that may impede their legislative momentum. A peek into the inner workings of what may have been for some a mysterious, inaccessible government body breeds a degree of trust in the minds of the people.

Photos are stills taken from a video posted online by Common Cause Rhode Island of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXuAJM_JqdA

1 Comment

  1. Sydney Willis

    February 20, 2019 at 2:46 pm

    Amy,
    I find your point about members of the House being unwilling to vote no against the Speaker of the House (at least when they are in the same party as the Speaker) very interesting. In today’s political climate, going against what a party leader wants can be dangerous because of possible political retribution. However, it shouldn’t be a concern in the first place. If someone is against an idea, shouldn’t they be able to vote no? More importantly, if a representative’s constituents are against an idea, shouldn’t their representative feel like he can do what his they want, even if that does mean going against party leaders? Isn’t that the whole point of democracy?

    The fact that so many politicians feel so tied to their party that they can’t even do what their constituents want is a clear sign of democratic erosion in the United States. I would argue that the major cause of this erosion is not simply politicians being afraid of losing votes, but rather the decrease of one of the most important unwritten rules of democracy: mutual toleration.

    In their book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt define mutual toleration as the idea of accepting that the other party has a right to compete for power, as long as they “play by constitutional rules” (102). In a broader sense, mutual toleration is the idea of believing that the people who belong to another party are still good people, even if their views don’t quite align with the ones you hold. Today, most people are only friends with people who have the same views as themselves. In fact, a large number of people said they wouldn’t marry someone who was a member of the opposite party, or even want their children to marry someone of the opposite party. This idea seems to contradict my earlier idea about politicians not doing what their constituents want, because how could constituents ever want their representative to go against the Speaker if that meant aligning with the other party? But as you pointed out, a lot of voters aren’t very knowledgeable about laws and how they are enacted because they are so complex. This unfortunate quality of our democracy means that because they view the other party as a threat, they don’t even want their representative working with them, even if the result would be beneficial for everyone.

    As Levistky and Ziblatt explain, mutual toleration is necessary in a democracy. As it disappears, members of one party begin to view members of the other party as “existential threats” (106). These intense findings about interparty marriage explain why party members are so reluctant to do something that might portray them as consorting with members of another party. They don’t want to jeopardize their own career. However, such an unwillingness to do what’s best is dangerous. It creates a positive feedback loop of fear and distrust: the more politicians feed into the idea that the other party is a threat, the more constituents will believe that, and the more polarized the United States will become. More polarization will continue the downward spiral of mutual toleration.

    The decline of mutual tolerance is one cause for democratic erosion, but it may also lead to the decline of another key idea of the democratic bargain: forbearance. Forbearance, as defined by Levitsky and Ziblatt, is “avoiding actions, that while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit” (106). Forbearance is important because without it, once a party comes to power, they might pass laws making it impossible for another party to ever gain control again. Although there have been some instances where politicians have shown a lack of forbearance, such as when Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for a third and fourth term in office, for the most part the United States has had a good history of maintaining that norm. Despite that past restraint by most politicians in the United States, as mutual tolerance decreases, the likelihood of forbearance also declining is much higher.

    To conclude, I think that the idea of voting no against the Speaker of the House is a norm that will be hard to break is true, but it has been made even harder in recent years. Voting against the speaker of the House is now seen as a complete betrayal of one’s own party, even if they are doing what their constituents need. Its causes, decline in both mutual toleration and forbearance, are deep problems today in the United States, and they need to be sorted out if our country is to remain one of the strongest examples of a democracy in the world.

    Work Cited
    Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Broadway Books, 2019.

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