I have followed with interest the legislative reform discussions now being undertaken by the House Governmental Operations, Reform, Technology and Elections Committee
. This week, the Committee held the first of three hearings on potential changes to the parliamentary rules of the House. Among the topics being discussed are the practices for referring bills to committees, the length of legislative debates and the amendment process. (A video of the Committee’s deliberations on this topic is accessible here
I was interested in the subject because, years ago, I was a Vice-Chairman of a predecessor committee and the Chairman of one of its subcommittees. The challenges involved with managing the legislative machinery to productive ends, was familiar to me.
In my view, the pressures points for today’s House Majority are the same that bedeviled the majority that I served way back when – namely: Are the best traditions of the House those that are associated with the ability of each Member to represent his or her constituents as the Member sees fit? Or are the House’s finest hours when it works efficiently as a collective? Stated another way: Do we more closely identify with an “Army of One” or the “Committee of the Whole”?In Defense of an Army of One
: In comparison to other state legislative bodies around our country, the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate are remarkably open, accessible and transparent places. Only one legislator is required to introduce a bill
, offer an amendment
, oblige the House to vote first on a minority report
, or to make procedural motions to slow the pace of deliberations
. In the tradition of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
, one Member of the Minnesota Legislature can make long and very brave stands, if conscience requires it – and I have always thought that this procedural and cultural feature of our lawmaking ultimately makes our state better and a more decent place to live. (In the interests of full disclosure, however, my own “Mr. Smith moment,” and the bi-partisan bollixing that resulted for a time, can still be viewed here
at the 30 minute point in the tape.)An Ode to the Committee of the Whole
: I also know what it means to run a legislative committee, and to have the political fortunes of one’s legislative teammates rest, in part, upon the committee timely completing its work. Legislative majorities are held to account if the proverbial trains do not run on time. And one’s record while governing is an important part of the messaging for any majority party at election time.
And so how can these two different and competing institutional interests be reconciled?
In my view, the solution lies in managing the volume
of legislation on the agenda. With fewer topics, there is time for detailed reviews and exploring alternatives, while still leaving spacious opportunities for small minorities – even minorities of one – to be heard.
Hearing time during the legislative session is a precious resource. In order to impose some discipline on the range of topics covered, I have always favored using “market incentives” – such as awarding preferences certain Member-designated priority bills
or bills that were pre-filed before the start of the legislative session; setting a much earlier deadline for the receipt of agency bills
(preferably a date that precedes the legislative session); and having more detailed reviews of, and planning around, the legislation that was pre-filed. By making a set of early choices, I believe that the Legislature can have it all – thoughtful debates and the time to hear from everyone.