Organizing the Senate – Inside baseball   “Hooser – Policy and Politics”

Question: What’s the most important number in the Hawaii State Senate?

Answer: 13

There are 25 Senators, 13 is a majority and majority rules.  There are 51 members in the House, thus 26 is the magic number there.

Any Senator who has 12 solid friends can basically run the show.  13 votes decide who will be Senate President, the Chair of Ways and Means and the rules of the Senate.

A core majority of 13 Senators determine the composition of, and consequently “control” a majority of the seats/votes on every committee,and thus control which Bills pass and which do not.

The process is not pretty, and if we replace the word “control” by the word “manage” it is somewhat more palatable.  To be clear, each Senator is technically independent, but within the core majority bonds are tight and loyalty to “leadership” is the norm.

“Organization” can happen at any time but typically occurs to some degree at the end of every two year election cycle.

When the Hawaii Senate “organizes” it means 13 or more Senators agree as to “who gets what” in terms of committee assignments, leadership positions and other benefits and trappings of power and position (office size/location, staffing budgets, parking spots etc).

Negotiations (i.e. horse trading for positions and power) will occur between individuals and between “factions” or small groups of Senators who have banded together out of friendship, ideology or pragmatism (survival).

Behind the scenes, labor unions, business organizations and a host of professional lobbyists, insiders and political operatives will be leaning hard on the Senate organizers, attempting to influence the outcome and protect their own particular special interests.

The two most powerful positions in any legislative body would be its administrative head (Senate President and House speaker) and its “money chairs” (Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees).

Historically these two positions would be divided between two different factions, thus “balancing the power,” rather than allowing it to be concentrated in two individuals from the same faction.

The recent “re-organization” of these positions in both the House and Senate does not appear to reflect this important power-balancing dynamic.

Following election cycles or other events (deaths, scandal etc.) that disrupt the vital 13-member core, there will often be an entirely new “leadership” structure established and all/most positions impacted.

During such a full “re-org,” Senators who are part of an initial 13-member “core majority” will be rewarded by a leadership position and/or a committee chairmanship. The Senator who occupies that vital #13 swing vote position often achieves inordinate benefits due to his/her “leverage” (more about “leverage” in a future column).

Note: While 13 is the magic number, most “re-orgs” seek the insurance and stability that a 14 or 15 member “core majority” will offer.

Those Senators not part of the “core majority” MAY get a vice-chair position, but otherwise will get assigned to various committees albeit in minority roles.  They will not have positions in “leadership,” they will not Chair a committee of any consequence and they will often have the smallest offices in the less desirable locations. These Senators, of course,retain the important power and responsibility of being a “watch dog” that comes with any minority position.  And they, of course, will continuously be seeking to form their own 13-member core majority, and if/when they are able to do so, there will be another “re-org.”

Consequently, each member of the core majority of 13 presently in power owes their personal position of power and status to the other 12.  If any of the 13 loses an election or otherwise leaves the leadership faction, the entire leadership structure collapses and a new “re-org” will occur.

Thus arises the sometimes corrupting desire to “protect and reward your members” in order to preserve the entire leadership structure.

“Protecting your members” most often comes in the form of shielding them from having to vote on controversial issues.

“Rewards” may come in the form of favorable treatment for legislation the members are championing, media attention, Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) and/or Grant-In-Aid (GIA) allocations.

Re-organizations are a reality of any legislative body.  They can be executed in ways that benefit the public interest, or in ways that are detrimental to that same interest.

A thoughtful, integrity-based reorganization process takes into consideration the needs of ALL members finding positions of value for each, thus minimizing dissension and maximizing talents – to the benefit of the public and our democratic system.

NOTE: A slightly edited version of the above was first printed on August 2, 2017 in The Garden Island Newspaper

About garyhooser

This blog represents my thoughts as an individual person and does not represent the official position of any organization I may be affiliated with. I presently serve as volunteer President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) I am the former Vice-Chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. In another past life, I was an elected member of the Kauai County Council, a Hawaii State Senator, and Majority Leader, and the Director of Environmental Quality Control for the State of Hawaii - in an even earlier incarnation I was an entrepreneur and small business owner. Yes, I am one of the luckiest guys on the planet. Please visit my website AND sign up for my newsletter (unlike any email newsletter you have ever gotten, of that I am sure) - “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We’re afraid.” “Come to the edge.” “We can’t. We will fall!” “Come to the edge.” And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew. - Christopher Logue (b.1926)
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1 Response to Organizing the Senate – Inside baseball   “Hooser – Policy and Politics”

  1. Patrick Bustamante says:

    Interesting article, it causes one to wonder, with all do respect, what difference does it make in a one party state? Currently in the state you have the favorites and the FAVORITES. It’s all relative meaning your liked or really liked but everyone is batting for the same team. There is no balance of power with the current legislature and government. I even question if the current republicans in office believing they are really RINOs based upon their policy and votes. That is okay as long as the party controlling everything accepts the results of their policies and decisions and doesn’t try to blame others. You are fighting for changes to GMO and Pesticide use in Hawaii but the Democratic machine refuses to acknowledge their role in polluting Hawaii farmlands and endangering the health of innocent citizens, many of which are children and elderly. You speak kindly of the Governor but he is leading the pack, and I mean pack (like rabid dogs) against non GMO and harmful pesticides. Why? Easy …. follow the money. So it really doesn’t matter who has what role or position except it determines the size of the power stick to inflict their will. With much aloha. pb

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