“I’ll just stay here for your thing,” Rhode Island House Majority Whip John Edwards can be heard saying in the video, “I’m never, ever at this…”
“Actually, you are,” pointed out the clerk, James DeCastro.
After a nearly two hour session on the House floor passing the red flag bill and banning bump stocks, State Representatives gathered in room 135 of the Rhode Island State House where the House Labor Committee was assembling to hear public testimony on a bill to help establish fair wages for women and minorities, and a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15.
The House Labor Committee, which has 16 members, would need at least nine members present to make a quorum. It was a slow start, and many in the room, including minimum wage advocates and business group lobbyists opposed to raising the minimum wage had already waited two hours to present their testimony.
Eventually, however, there were enough Representatives in the room to establish a quorum.
Representatives Robert Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown), Mary Messier (Democrat, District 62, Pawtucket), Stephen Casey (Democrat, District 50, Woonsocket), Brian Newberry (Republican, District 48, North Smithfield), Daniel McKiernan (Democrat, District 7, Providence), Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown, Narragansett), Deborah Fellela (Democrat, District 43, Johnston), Helder Cunha (Democrat, District 64, East Providence), Michael Chippendale (Republican, District 40, Coventry, Foster Glocester) and John Edwards (Democrat, District 70, Tiverton) declared themselves present, establishing a quorum.
Immediately there was a motion to hold all bills for further study, which passed by a unanimous vote. Then Edwards, Chippendale and McEntee, with a nod from Committee Chair Craven, left the room. Chippendale and Edwards didn’t even sit down. Their presence in the committee lasted exactly long enough to establish a fake quorum and vote to hold all bills.
Shortly after the immediate departure of Chippendale, Edwards and McEntee, both McKiernan and Newberry also left the room.
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It was only later, when reviewing the video, that I realized that Whip Edwards was joking with the clerk about never being at House Labor meetings and about faking his attendance at the meetings to establish quorums, as seen at the beginning of this piece.
One of the minimum wage advocates in the room later told me, “It’s like punching in for the beginning of your shift, then taking off for the day…”
Representatives Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, East Providence, Providence), Kathleen Fogarty (Democrat, District 35, South Kingstown), Jared Nunes (Democrat, District 25, Coventry), Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence) and Stephen Ucci (Democrat, District 42, Johnston) did not help establish a fake quorum. They did not attend the meeting at all.
Representative Kenneth Marshall (Democrat, District 68, Bristol) joined the meeting a little late.
There were no cameras in the room except for mine. The meeting was being audio recorded. The official record shows that 10 representatives were at the meeting. In fact, there were seven, then less than seven. According to the official record, Edwards, and other legislators were at the meeting. In reality, they were not.
I reached out to many reps for this story but only Daniel McKiernan would go on record, responding, “Sometimes we do have conflicts. I went to Labor to help establish a quorum and make a procedural vote to hold all of the bills for further consideration. At the time any vote is taken, there must be a quorum.
“I then went to an Oversight hearing regarding UHIP. It is my practice to stay in hearings unless I have a conflict. I am supporting the Equal Pay and $15 minimum wage bills. I went to the UHIP hearing because I had prepared a number of questions, and felt my attendance there better served the public interest.”
Larry Berman, House communications director, replied that, “House members do their best to attend committee hearings, but some are members of multiple committees and they may have to run between two or three hearings in one evening.
“House rules require a quorum to start a hearing and to conduct votes, which often take place at the beginning of the hearings,” continued Berman. “Every committee meeting is either video or audio recorded and members can follow up if they aren’t able to attend. They can also review written testimony that is submitted to committees when they have conflicting meetings.”
The House rules on a quorum actually say, “A committee shall not consider any bill in the absence of a quorum, which shall consist of a majority of the committee’s membership.” That’s it.
Those helping to establish a fake quorum in House Labor Thursday evening were not from a particular political party. Chippendale is a Republican, Edwards a Democrat. The issue isn’t one of party affiliation, but seems to be about institutional malaise and a shrugging admittance that the fight is fixed.
One member of the General Assembly, replying to my inquiries but declining to be identified, told me that while it is true that there are sometimes multiple meetings going on, the truth is that many members of the General Assembly feel that committee meetings are “meaningless.”
Committees, said the General Assembly member, “have no power” and are tightly controlled by the Speaker of the House and the Senate President. Since no legislation happens without the approval of leadership, and it is well known what legislation will advance and what legislation will languish. Listening to public testimony is thought by many to be a waste of time. Public testimonies do not sway leadership and have no power.
Update: John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, writes:
“There is a very real problem at the General Assembly with members of the public testifying to largely empty rooms. There are sometimes legitimate reasons why this happens, particularly because members sit on more than one committee, or must introduce legislation to one committee while sitting on another. However, anyone who has stayed late knows that the number of committee members who remain trails off as the evening wears on, particularly if there is a fundraiser for a member of the leadership that night. This isn’t uniform, however, and there are some members who put in incredible hours and very thoughtfully stay until the last witness has testified. But in those instances when only a few committee members stay to take testimony from dozens of witnesses who have waited hours, it’s discouraging to the public.”
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