Common Cause rallies Rhode Islanders to support legislative reforms

The state House of Representative leadership appears to be rushing through rules that would consolidate the power of the Speaker of the House, with a hearing scheduled Tuesday before the Rules Committee.

This comes on the heels of 19 reform minded legislators proposing other rules that would require more transparency, and require public notice of substantive amendments, among other changes.

Common Cause is concerned about the process, and the substance.

“What is happening in 2019 is without precedent,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause RI. “The earliest the rules have been introduced since 2003 is Jan. 24, and this year they were introduced on Jan 4.

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“After every election the Rhode Island House and Senate set their rules,” Marion said. “Those rules determine everything from when a bill can be introduced, to how a legislator can cast their vote. Over the course of decades in the House of Representatives those rules have been used to consolidate power in the hands of the Speaker.”

Marion said the reform movements proposals included:

  • A requirement that substantive amendments be publicly available for 48 hours before a vote. “For too many years last minute amendments have been used to fundamentally change bills, especially in the final days of the session,” Marion said. “We don’t feel it is asking too much to let members of the House Committee on Finance read the $9 billion state budget before being asked to vote on it.”
  • A requirement that two thirds of the House must vote to suspend any rule. “Under the current rules, Representatives don’t have to go to vote, and go on the record, to suspend the rules,” Marion said. “Instead the ‘unanimous consent’ of the majority and minority leaders can suspend the rules without a vote. This change would end that practice and put all 75 members of the House on the record.”
  • A change that allows bills introduced in the first year of the session to stay alive for two years.
  • A change that allows discharge petitions to be circulated around the floor of the House by a bill’s sponsor. “A discharge petition is used to bring a bill to the floor even if the committee hasn’t voted on it,” Marion said. “This reform would take the rules back to their previous form, allowing a sponsor to walk a discharge petition around the House floor.”

Marion and Common Cause have long been critical of the power wielded by the Speaker of the House.

“The speaker’s power comes at the expense of the rank-and-file legislators who represent 98 percent of Rhode Islanders who do not live in (Nicholas) Mattiello’s district,” Marion said. “This power is allocated to the speaker in three important ways: through our Constitution, our laws and the rules of the House of Representatives.”