Senate Rules Changes are Not Acceptable

February 8, 2019

Rhode Islanders for Reform is staunchly opposed to the proposed 2019-2020 Senate Rules package, as introduced on Thursday. There are significant alterations to the rules from previous sessions, which would result in a huge, unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of Senate Leadership. We are calling on all senators to oppose these changes. We must preserve the relative integrity of the Senate’s legislative process as we fight for even basic integrity in the House.
The most disturbing change being proposed is the nullification of committee assignment protections. New language would give the Senate President sole authority to remove senators from their assigned committees against their will. This eliminates a crucial protection often touted as making the Senate superior in process to the House.  It opens the door for leadership to coerce other senators to vote a certain way by threatening to remove senators from their committee positions.
The second notable change is the Senate President’s power to privately, unilaterally officiate a change in a senator’s vote. The rules have thus far required a majority vote from the senate body to allow a senator to retroactively change their vote. The rule change would allow the Senate President to grant this allowance behind closed doors, creating a new and dangerous mechanism for strong-arming from Senate Leadership even when it would change the overall result of the chamber’s vote.  It would also enable senators to vote a certain way to appease their constituents, just to alter their vote at a later point.
Then there is a crippling limitations on floor debate. The new language imposes a five minute time limit on floor speeches. This rule would make legitimate, transparent legislative debate far more difficult. Even more seriously, it constitutes an effort to eliminate the filibuster. This is an extreme attempt to concentrate power in the hands of the Senate President. (It is interesting to note: during last week’s debate over the controversial appointment of Judge Merola, the Senate President falsely claimed that there already existed a five minute time limit. When challenged by Senator Sam Bell, the Senate President could not prove the assertion and lost face on the Senate Floor.) The Senate filibuster is one of the last protections of the minority against truly outrageous action. Notably, the filibuster has not been used in years, and there is no record of it being abused in the Rhode Island Senate. The very fact that it is being eliminated suggests that the Senate President may be planning legislation so outrageous that it would generate the first Senate filibuster in a very long time.
Aside from the above, there is a long list of other proposed alterations to the Senate Rules, which would further concentrate power. Signs are to be banned in committee rooms, limiting the free speech of citizens who come to testify. The rule regarding suspension of the rules is to be significantly weakened, allowing the majority and minority leader to execute this independent of the ⅔ of the body previously required. A quorum for commencement of daily session is to be changed from 20 to 19 senators, making it more difficult for a caucus to use its collective power. There is no attempt at all to address sexual harassment, the secret ballot for the election of Senate President required by statute would be explicitly prohibited (ensuring that the President will always know who his supporters are), and the chamber would even switch from Robert’s Rules of Order to Mason’s, as is used in the House.
The proposed Senate Rules are a blatant and embarrassing attempt by Senate Leadership to turn the more transparent Senate into something more broken than the House of Representatives. It appears that this is a direct response to the public outcry over the broken House Rules, in which Senate Leadership has decided to not only ignore the public’s demands for more governmental transparency, but symbolically spit in our faces. The very clear message being sent is that Senate Leadership wishes to copy all that is broken and autocratic about the House.
We will not stand for this abuse of the legislative process.

Rhode Islanders for Reform is a coalition of citizens calling for legislative rules reform and a return to representative democracy in the RI General Assembly.