Lessons from the ledge – Power Flow

The question of power flow at the Hawaii State legislature is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.  While most will assume that power is concentrated at the top with the Senate President and Speaker of the House, most students of government will say that actually the most powerful figures in any legislative bodies are the “money chairs”.  In the case of Hawaii this would be Senator Donovan Dela Cruz and Representative Sylvia Luke, Chair of Ways and Means and Finance, respectively.  And, upon just a small amount of reflection this would seem reasonable as money is central to almost all decisions.

As previously discussed, the most important number in the Senate is 13 and in the House it is 26.  These are the numbers it takes to “organize” and select the President, Speaker, the money chairs and all other “subject matter chairs” (education, environment, transportation etc).

Consequently, you will very rarely if ever see a “floor vote” where the President, Speaker, WAM and Finance Chairs are on the losing side of the vote.  By definition, they represent the majority and if they lose that majority, they in fact will lose their positions.  These types of voting situations rarely happen because they are usually not allowed to ever come to a vote, and will otherwise be amended to please the majority or the bill will die more or less quietly, without a vote, in a private meeting, held in a windowless room, down in the capitol basement (trust me I am not exaggerating).

Every committee is made up of a Chair and members, a majority of whom technically can control or at least veto the actions of the committee upon which they sit.  In the Senate committees are frequently made up of only 5 individuals, which translates to only 3 votes being needed to confirm the decisions.  In the House, the committee membership is normally larger.

At the risk of over-simplification, the power at the legislature flows from the majority (at least 13 in the Senate and 26 members in the House) to create “leadership” (President and Speaker) and create the committee Chairs and structure.  From this point the control of proposed legislation (bills), including the state budget, flow through the subject matter committees and ultimately often also through the money committees and or other “second tier committees” such as Judiciary and Consumer Protection.  At each step of the way, any of the Committee Chairs may kill or amend the measure. 

While the power of a committee is technically held by a majority of members on the committee, the reality is that the Chair of the Committee exercises an inordinate amount of power and control. Members rarely challenge that authority.  Perhaps members will raise concerns directly to the chair in private, but rarely will they vote against the Chair in public.

Understandably, some members may be hesitant to risk angering or irritating a Chair, who then could punish that member by deciding not to hear their particular priority bill, or fund their particular priority capitol improvement project (district specific school, highway improvements etc).  One really never knows if they have been “punished” or not as time does not allow every bill to be heard, there are duplicative bills to choose from, and certainly there is not enough money to go around to fund every school improvement or every highway expansion in every district.  But the fear of angering a Chair and facing possible retribution always lingers over any vote or decision any member may be considering that goes against the Chair, unless that member is also a Chair who then could offer retribution of their own.

All of which justifies the term “snake pit” that some use when referring to the legislative environment.  

For the regular readers of this column, I refer you back to the term leverage which equates directly to power.  The more leverage a member has, the more power and influence they have.

The “Money Chairs” have the leverage that comes with controlling every single aspect of the state budget.  “Subject Matter Chairs” have the leverage that comes with every single bill that is referred to their committee.

If a legislator is new and/or does not Chair a committee then their leverage and thus power is limited to their voice and their vote – and perhaps amplified by their “faction” (their legislative friends) within the legislative body.  

Those members who have the ability to articulate the issues, are willing to speak out, and who are politically strong in their districts – hold their own brand of leverage and power.

Leadership’s job is to hold the ship steady, avoid controversy and conduct “the people’s business” with as little drama as possible.  A maverick legislator, willing to speak truth to power, who knows their facts and knows how to articulate them clearly, can often generate media and thus public attention on issues and questions that otherwise may not be raised. 

So Mary, Mary quite contrary – how does the power flow?

It begins with the referral process normally managed by the House/Senate leadership (President and Speaker).  Bills are introduced and referred to Subject matter committees.

The Chair of the committee decides to either schedule a bill for a public hearing, or not.  The Chair then decides to pass and/or amend the measures they have agreed to hear.  The committee normally acquiesces to the decision of the Chair (who hopefully has “taken the temperature of the committee prior to the hearing).  There may or may not be a maverick or dissident voice that raises questions or offers a competing public opinion.

Frankly, in a one party state like Hawaii there are not enough competing ideas and voices (IMHO).

The bill then moves on normally to at least one other committee. This more often than not, will be the “money committee” (Ways and Means in the Senate or Finance in the House).  The money committee Chair then decides similarly, to hear or not hear and to pass or amend, or not.

For many bills this translates to a fact that a total of 4 legislators, two in the House and two in the Senate totally control the fate of critical legislation that impact every aspect of our lives.  A majority of legislators can of course over-rule the decisions made by these 4, however this is the same majority that empowered them with their committee chairmanships in the first place.

The 4 legislators describe above are one example of a particular bill, meant to be a general example of the power of Chairs.  

Some Bills only have 2 people who drive the entire process.  For example decisions on the budget bill which is the biggest most important bill at the legislature are entirely driven by the Chair of the House Finance Committee, and the Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.  To be clear, lot’s of people “weigh in” including committee staff, departments heads, agency staff, the public and a wide range of special interests, but the basic core decision-making is done by just these two individuals.  Members of the committee will lobby the chair on interests important to them and their district, but they will always “vote yes” with the Chair. 

And the public? Where does the public fit into all of this?

The public, hopefully between working multiple jobs, attending PTA meetings and mowing the grass – the public is doing their best to pay attention, submitting testimony, calling/emailing their district Representatives and Senators, writing letters to the editor – and in general being involved in the process.

And of course, every two years the public elects the legislators to serve, or un-elects them as the case may be. 

While perhaps not a pretty description of sausage-making, but according to Winston Churchill, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Note: For those interested in learning the reality and inner-workings of the Hawaii State Legislature, here is a collection pieces I have written that are eventually intended to become a “handbook to the legislature” of sorts, in the future:

About garyhooser

This blog represents my thoughts as an individual person. I presently serve now as a volunteer President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) www.hapahi.org In a 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. “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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