Thursday, November 18, 2010

GOP lawmaker suggests House rules changes first

State Rep. John Blust, a Guilford County Republican, has been pushing for House rules changes for years that would open up the process, give minority legislators as well as those in the majority a better chance to have their amendments heard and give legislators more time to consider appropriations bills before they have to cast a yea or nay vote.

 From where I sit in the press gallery, they've looked like good ideas to boost democracy and make sure every legislator gets a chance to have his or her ideas at least aired.  But they probably don't look so good to those who have to run the sometimes fractious 120-member House, where party discipline is an important factor in moving the chamber's work along, making sure the majority rules in an efficient way and passing a budget before the end of the fiscal year.

Now, with an important Republican caucus coming up Saturday to in effect choose those who will run the House the next two years, Blust is asking his GOP colleagues to change the rules first.

In an email to those elected to the 2011 House , Blust said, 
"I propose that we adopt the changes I outline in the attachment prior to proceeding to a vote on our leadership positions.  I hope all those seeking a leadership position will provide the caucus with their reaction to these proposals before Saturday’s caucus.  All caucus member should feel free to provide me your feedback on these.  They are not written in stone.  Each of the proposed changes can be backed up by a specific abuse or a multitude of abuses which I have personally witnessed while serving in the legislature."

It'll be interesting to see if Blust's party is any more interested in his proposed changes than Democrats were; many of his ideas were ignored by most Democrats in past sessions, but that doesn't mean they weren't good ideas.
For those who have the time for a long read, here's what Blust has in mind:
Proposed Rules Changes for Republican House Caucus

Republicans will control the North Carolina legislature for the first time in more than a century when the legislature convenes on January 26. This control comes about as the State is facing its most difficult budget challenge in over 75 years. Decades of Democrat mismanagement and obstruction of sound, common-sense proposals to address problems facing this State have created a backlog of needed legislation. Democrat corruption has run rampant and the people’s trust in government has fallen precipitously. Our voters elected us to address these pressing matters because the Democrats refused to act. Much of this deplorable situation has its roots in the hegemony that a select few have had over the NC House and NC Senate. We must act quickly to chart a new course. The first thing we must do as a caucus is to restore the North Carolina House as a deliberative body in which the will of the majority, rather than the compulsive power of a few, is what controls the outcome of the legislative process.

We have many fine members seeking leadership positions. Those seeking these positions need to be the servants and facilitators of the caucus members. We are 68 in number and none of us has superior knowledge over all the other 67 combined. I do not think any of our members would abuse power to the extent of the past Democrat leaders; nevertheless, it is important to guarantee that this will not happen through a deliberative process based on rules. Those seeking leadership can guarantee this by supporting proposed changes that will devolve power.

I therefore propose that before we proceed to elect leadership, we as a caucus agree to certain matters which our elected leaders can then be elected with the commitment to observe. These entail the following changes to the House Rules and operations we can agree to adopt:

1. The caucus will control the appointment of committee chairmen and the committee assignments of its members. We can have a select committee of our leadership to take the requests of our members and prepare a proposed committee set-up to bring back to the next caucus meeting for approval. Committee chairmen and committee members can thereafter only be removed and replaced by a vote for the caucus for cause. This makes clear that committees work for the caucus, not one person. This will help ensure that committee chairmanship is based on merit, not favoritism based upon who a member backed for Speaker.

2. House office assignments will be made by choice of the caucus members in the order of seniority, subject to some special assignments based on committee chairmanships. This will mean no member owes his/her office to one person and will eliminate the possibility of deal-making for office space.

3. Seating in the chamber will be by choice of the members in the order of seniority.

4. Allow it to be possible for a House member to move bills that have majority support from a committee so that one person cannot block the flow of legislation. Allow a discharge petition, which brings a bill to the House floor, if 61 members sign it. Allow rule 39 to actually work in which a member can move the House for removal of a bill from a committee. Allow a committee to vote to put a bill on its agenda. Republicans should have a two-vote majority on all but the Ethics Committee. Require that a committee hold a vote on any bill that meets a certain threshold of support – say, 30 co-sponsors.

5. Ensure that the rules and the calendar control the flow of legislation, rather than the will of one or two members. The calendar should be followed except by leave of the House to vary the order.

6. Provide that the budget will actually be prepared by the Appropriations subcommittees, not in a back room somewhere. Allow transparency by allowing a minimum time for members to review a proposed budget bill. At least 72 hours should be allowed before a vote on the conference report on the budget can be held. Require approval of the full House before any new rules on budget debate can be imposed. Allow some minimum of debt and proposed amendments to the budget. Prohibit the budget from containing substantive law changes which should be in stand-alone bills.

7. Require some minimum debate be allowed before the question on a matter can be called.

8. Do away with the prohibition on floor amendments that change the long title of a bill, which has prevented members not on a committee which passes out a bill from being able to influence the provisions of that bill. The germaneness rule will still cover proposed amendments.

9. Make clear in Rule 6 that the Speaker’s "general direction of the hall" does not override the need for the Speaker to observe the House Rules. Require the Speaker to recognize House members for business that is in order under the rules. Require the Speaker to state the precise reason when the Speaker rules a member’s proposal out of order. Allow a majority, rather than two-thirds, to overrule the ruling of the chair (We will have 68 votes anyway).

10. (This is not a House Rule but should be a caucus rule.) Allow the caucus to approve hirings of the Speaker. (Remember Black’s secret hiring of a House historian in a make-work position to silence a crony. Also remember the bloated staff and outrageous salaries of Hackney. Remember the secret bonuses of Basnight in a year state employees had salary freezes.)

These proposals should not be interpreted as a slap at anyone running for our leadership. Perhaps none of our candidates would do some of the untoward things we have seen in the past. But these proposals will provide us with a guarantee, not just a promise. They will also send a strong signal to the public that we intend to be different – to be better and provide better government than North Carolina has seen in the past several years. These changes will also prevent the pay-to-play regimen of the Democrats which we pledged to end in our ten-point plan.

I therefore move the adoption of a caucus resolution that we approve the above-listed ten items before we elect our leadership and that our elected leaders accept the positions to which they may be elected subject to these proposed ten points. If we agree to these changes, who we elect as Speaker will not be as critical as it has been in the past when it has literally been the whole ball game. It will make it easier to unify around our leadership, because no member will have to worry about having backed a non-prevailing candidate. The rights and privileges we all were awarded by our voters at the ballot box will be protected.

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