The nature and extent of power wielded by House Speaker Scott Saiki is the subject of much speculation among policy wonks, lobbyists, and legislative advocates. Some will say he is omnipotent, and others will mock this characterization and defend his actions as “only representing the will of the majority.”
It is true that his powers are bestowed upon him by the majority. But it’s also true that his power is pretty much omnipotent.
The House Rules, adopted and approved by at least 26 members of the House, grant the Speaker total control of almost everything of importance. In order to change those rules, 26 members must agree – otherwise, the Speaker reigns supreme.
Whether a bill is passed into law or not is largely if not completely in the hands of the Speaker.
If you don’t believe me, read the rules which are here and which I paraphrase below.
The Speaker has complete control over all bill referrals to the various committees. If any member objects to a referral that objection is reviewed by a committee. Regardless of that committee’s decision, “The Speaker’s decision shall be the final disposition of the matter.” Rule 2.1(14)
The Speaker controls the final dates for action on legislation. Rule 2.1 (16)
The Speaker has unilateral authority to appoint all members of all committees and chooses who will be the Chair and Vice-Chair. Rule 11.2 (1)
If the Chair’s of two committees have a disagreement, the Speaker’s decision prevails. Rule 13.1 (3)
If a majority of members in a committee want to hold a hearing on a bill against the desire of the Chair, the Speaker’s decision on the matter rules (regardless of what a majority on the committee may want). Rule 11.3
The Speaker literally has authority over whether or not a prayer is offered at the start of each floor session. If you want to offer a prayer, you must seek the Speaker’s permission. Rule 30.2
The Speaker controls where each member sits during floor sessions of the House. It’s not by seniority, or first come first served, or by lottery, but by where the Speaker wants you to sit. Rule 2.1 (17)
Notice of meetings may be shortened at the discretion of the Speaker upon request on the House floor by a chair or vice-chair and upon good cause shown. Rule 11.5 (1)
The Speaker after giving all members at least 15 days prior written notice may authorize legal action on behalf of the House and shall notify members of non-confidential legal action taken on behalf of the House. The Speaker does not have to request permission from the members prior to taking legal action on behalf of the House but merely notify them. And if the legal action is “confidential” they don’t even have to be notified. Rule 2.3
As you can see the Speaker is indeed omnipotent when it comes to power over the State House of Representatives. Yes, a majority can object and change the rules – but good luck rounding up 26 members to agree to undertake such a challenge and risk retaliation for their audacity to do so. Rule 59
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. The rules could be drawn in a way that was more collaborative, more inclusive, and more democratic.
Perhaps a citizen group should be organized to research and make recommendations on changes that would result in a more professional and more collaborative approach to the internal “rules of lawmaking.” This group could review the existing rules in both the House and the Senate and make formal and public recommendations that would result in a more transparent and democratic process.
For example, the State Senate’s rules governing the referral process specifies that the Senate Majority Office professional staff make the initial referral recommendations, then a leadership committee ratifies or amends those suggestions, and then the process can be appealed to the Senate President if a Chair does not agree with the referral.
The Senate Rules can be found here: https://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/docs/SenateRules.pdf
In some States, a legislative committee must hear ALL bills and a Chair (or the Speaker) cannot simply pick and choose those that please them.
Here is an interesting overview of how other state legislatures do these types of things:
It is well past time to decentralize and democratize the process.