Pulling back the legislative curtain. Cross-over, killing bills, fear, and the conference committee process

Beware the Ides of March – Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, or March 15, in the year 44 BCE. Caesar was stabbed to death at a meeting of the Roman Senate.

Today in the world of Hawaii Policy and Politics, when I think “Beware the Ides of March” I think about the legislative calendar and the time of cross-over, which leads to conference committee – a time when the legislative terrain turns into the killing fields.

Approximately 890 bills are alive at the moment. By the end of the legislative session Sine Die May 5, that number will drop to about 250.

Some bills will be kept alive simply as “bargaining chips” to leverage the passage of still yet other bills that may be totally unrelated.

Many will die because they are duplicative or “companion bills” when only one “vehicle” is actually needed. Others will die because “there is no money” to fund its provisions.

Of course, when they tell you there is no money, what they are really saying is that it’s not a priority.

Like the assassination of Julius Caesar, but in a much more genteel manner, many others will die in a conspiratorial environment with no one really knowing who actually pulled the trigger. Yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors.

The Chairs of the various committees will be responsible for putting to rest, as quietly and cleanly as possible those bills that do not have the support of their “leadership” (Senate President, House Speaker, WAM and Finance Chair). They will do the dirty work via three main strategies.

The Chair will either simply not schedule a bill for a hearing, schedule it and then “defer it indefinitely”, or pass the measure loaded with poison pill amendments guaranteeing it will go to conference committee where it can be killed in the dark.

To be clear and fair to the Chair, a majority of members can override the Chair’s decision but they won’t. And woe be it to the member who tries and fails.

Those bills that do have the support of leadership in the House or Senate, will then be passed out of their respective committees and head to conference committee where the ultimate bargaining and leveraging of various bills against each other will occur. While the conference committee meetings are technically public, the public is not allowed to testify and the actual decisions are made behind closed doors.

In conference, bills will often die just because a chair, usually the money committee chair, simply (but intentionally) fails to show up at the scheduled meeting time. Frequently the excuse given is a vague “We couldn’t get the other side to agree”. At the conclusion, no one really knows who is responsible for the demise of the measure.

Why so much subterfuge? Why make it so complicated? If a particular bill represents bad public policy or is an unpopular measure and lacks a majority of the members’ support, why not just say so and vote it down – and let the cards fall where they may?

The answer is fear.

Lawmaker politicians who must be elected to serve, and who love serving, lose votes almost every time they themselves cast a vote. So the fewer votes they cast, the fewer votes at the ballot box they risk losing. They lose at the ballot box and they lose everything – position, power, and prestige. Poof. Gone.

Think about it. Every time a bill is passed someone’s ox gets gored. Pass a bill restricting vaping or cigarettes, the vapors and smokers will not like you. Vote to support abortion rights, gun control or the rights of LGBTQ folks, and the religious right will scratch you off their voting list. Raise taxes on something, then boom…you lose more votes.

From a political perspective, killing bills without a vote and thus without accountability is the safest political way to operate. They have a phrase for this at the legislature and it’s called “protecting your members”.

Those in leadership positions, such as the Senate President and House Speaker, and those that hold the two most powerful Committee Chair positions (Ways and Means in the Senate and Finance in the House) hold these positions by virtue of their ability to gain the support of a majority of the members.

Rule #1 – majority rules. Senator Ronald Kouchi needs 13 votes to be Senate President. Representative Scott Saiki likewise needs 26 votes to retain his power as Speaker of the House. If either legislative leader loses their respective majority support, they lose their leadership position. Consequently, they are very motivated to “protect their members” and thus will do what they can to avoid “exposing their members” to tough public votes that put them at risk come election time.

This is why the vast majority of bills die in the dead of the night when no one is watching and without accountability. Those that are voted on and do pass are mostly supported unanimously or with very little opposition.

Do you wonder why there is a dearth of bold action, and strong forward-thinking leadership? The answer is a majority of those we elect and certainly those in leadership positions, live and operate primarily in a fear-based environment. They are afraid of making a mistake, and of losing their next election. Those in leadership positions are similarly afraid of losing that greater power and stature. So timidity is the norm and avoiding public votes the standard.

To be clear, we have good, talented, altruistic people now serving in both the House and the Senate, who are not fixated on the fear of losing the next election. We just need more of them. We need that majority required under Rule #1.

Stay tuned. Your help will be needed to get there, and August 13 is just around the corner.

Gary Hooser

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.) www.hapahi.org 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) - http://www.garyhooser.com/#four “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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2 Responses to Pulling back the legislative curtain. Cross-over, killing bills, fear, and the conference committee process

  1. Burt Furuta says:

    “To be clear, we have good, talented, altruistic people now serving in both the House and the Senate”
    Gary, where are your endorsements for 2022? I can’t find a list of candidates you support for 2022 on your blog or on Pono Hawaii Initiative.

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