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.
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