One of the first orders of business of a new session of the Rhode Island House of Representatives is establishing the rules by which the House will organize itself. The House Rules codify the structure by which bills and resolutions are introduced, deliberated and voted on.
The rules are introduced as resolutions (functionally the same as bills but resolutions do not require the approval of the Senate to be binding on the House). The rules resolution this year was introduced by Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence), who was kept in the position of Chair of the Rules Committee by newly elected Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (Democrat, District 23, Warwick). Other Representatives submitted bills to alter the rules in some way, with Representative Rebecca Kislak (Democrat, District 4, Providence) submitting six bills.
I spoke to Representative Kislak by Zoom on Wednesday morning to talk to her about her bills, and about the why the general public should care about the inside baseball wonkiness of the House Rules. Representative Kislak is an attorney and is just starting her second term in office.
Here’s the full video:
“I think that culture is really important and I’m really looking forward to working with the new leadership,” said Representative Kislak. “I think the rules of the road are really important for setting a baseline and a common understanding for how we are going to do things. These resolutions to change the rules of the House are aimed at making the process a little bit more democratic, make it easier to vote on bills, and make sure that we all know what we’re voting on before we vote on it.
“Every two years, the House reorganizes itself,” continued Representative Kislak. “After we get reelected or elected for the first time, there’s a new group of Representatives and we constitute a new House. Some of the first things that we do when we’re organizing is we vote for a new Speaker, which we did when we met last week. And then we have to come up with the rules.” These rules specify “what committees there are, how we get assigned to committees, and how the work of the House is going to happen. That’s one of the first bills that we consider together every two years, [and] that’s where we are in the process of the session right now.”
The House Rules resolution, as submitted by Chair Corvese, suggests some changes to the way the House organizes itself, especially as it grapples with remote meetings and the changes required during the current pandemic. Some of these changes in procedure may become permanent parts of the process going forward, like proxy voting, telephonic and video testimony, etc. Others will remain as emergency considerations for possible future pandemics or other disasters.
Were the new rules to pass as suggested, one of the most visible changes will be to the committees themselves. The Health, Education and Welfare Committee will be split into the House Education Committee and the House Health and Human Services Committee. The Committee on Municipal Government will become the Committee on Municipal Government and Housing. Two new committees, the Committee on State Government and Elections and the Innovation, Internet and Technology Committee will be formed.
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The Corvese resolution also allows a bill or resolution introduced in the first-year session of a legislative term of the House to be eligible to be carried over as an active bill or resolution into the second-year of the legislative term at the request of the prime sponsor. Currently, bills have to be re-introduced every year. Now bills will have a two-year shelf life.
Representative Kislak’s first resolution allows for remote voting by committee members during committee meetings and would allow for written, in-person or video testimony to be submitted by the public. Both of these ideas depend a lot on the technology.
“The technology is getting better and we’re all getting better at it,” said Representative Kislak. “I think it’s just a bandwidth issue for the number of committees we have and the licenses we have for the software that lets us do that. But I’m not sure.
“I think we should allow maximum access during COVID for sure, and possibly afterwards,” continued Representative Kislak. “I also think we have to be very aware that there are bandwidth issues and that’s okay. We have to keep working on them.”
Right now the Speaker of the House and the House Minority Leader can get together and suspend the rules if they think it is necessary. Another Representative Kislak resolution would take that power away and allow the rules to be suspended only by a two-thirds vote by all House members.
Suspending the rules at the end of the legislative session was a common practice at the House of Representatives for many years, but that changed two years ago, when the rules were not suspended.
“I think a lot of us really liked that,” said Representative Kislak. “I never served at a time when the rules were regularly suspended at the end of session, almost every year… I also recognize that there may be some circumstances when we would want to suspend the rules in order to do things and do the business of the people.”
Three of the resolutions put forward by Representative Kislak would, in her own words, “make it easier or would create a culture or support a culture where we’re just voting on more things as Representatives.”
The first resolution would allow a bill’s sponsor to insist on an up or down vote on their bill when it is being held for further study. “Held for further study” has become virtually synonymous with killing the bill in committee. Almost every bill is held for further study upon its introduction in committee. Sometimes the bills are brought back for consideration, which means the bill may get a vote. Most of the time the bills languish in obscurity until some backroom deal is made that satisfies the Speaker’s political objectives.
Representative Kislak’s resolution allows the sponsor to push for a committee vote. This is extremely useful to advocates, who now know which elected officials support their legislation and which do not, allowing them to more precisely target their activism.
“The second resolution in that series would, once bills get voted out of committee, ensure that they get scheduled for a floor vote within seven days, which is just an administrative, rules based assurance that things get scheduled in a timely fashion for the floor,” said Representative Kislak.
The third resolution in Representative Kislak’s series would make it easier for the sponsor to move bills out of committee and to the floor for a full vote by the House.
“Lots of States make it easier for members of the legislature to withdraw a bill from committee and move it to the floor for votes,” said Representative Kislak. “I did some research a couple of years ago on what people call it in different states – removing a bill, discharging, withdrawing, relieving a committee of a bill, recalling a measure, or, in South Dakota, it’s called a smoke out of a bill.”
This resolution “would let me walk around and take a page and gather signatures for a discharge petition. It would let me do it earlier in the session and this resolution would also let me keep the signature sheet and not leave it on the podium under the watchful eyes of leadership,” said Representative Kislak. “It makes it a little easier.”
Right now discharge petitions must be left on the podium, the railing below the Speaker’s dais, where he and his leadership team can watch every member as the come forward and sign onto the bill. This puts members in jeopardy of displeasing leadership and at risk for retribution.
As it stands now, all bills introduced in the House must sit for 24 hours before being voted on. This allows legislators, advocates and the general public time to read the bills before they are voted on. Believe it or not, time to read the bills they are voting on wasn’t always provided to legislators only a few short years ago. However, appropriation and budget bills are exempt from this rule. Representative Kislak’s resolution would remove this exemption.
Over all, Representative Kislak thinks that the leadership’s proposed rules resolution is great. She will be suggesting a floor amendment, if necessary, to allow floor votes by proxy, as is done in the Rhode Island Senate. And she has some “clarifying questions about that process.”
There are other rules resolutions that Representative Kislak generally supports as well. Representatives Lauren Carson (Democrat, District 75, Newport), June Speakman (Democrat, District 68, Bristol, Warren) and Terri-Denise Cortvriend (Democrat, District 72, Portsmouth) have proposed listing up to ten Representatives as sponsors of a bill as opposed to the limit of five that exists today. The limit of five, suggests Representative Kislak, seems to be a software issue.
“One of the things that Representative Cortvriend proposes, and I whole heartedly agree with, is that eventually we should have a website that can link all the written testimony, which should be posted and publicly available,” said Representative Kislak. “And the bills should also be linked the actual testimony, so you don’t have to go search separately on Capitol TV for that. There should just be a link. When our technology is up to that, surely we will be able to also post all of the co-sponsors, but we’re just not quite there yet.”
Representative Jason Knight (Democrat, District 67, Barrington, Warren) “introduced a resolution that would ensure that members are entitled to two committees each, at a minimum,” said Representative Kislak. “And I wholeheartedly agree with that. I had a proposal that I did not put in that would have said that we get a major committee and a minor committee at a minimum. I didn’t put in my proposal because we are also changing the committees…”
The House Committee on Rules met on Thursday, January 14. Here is the full video of that meeting:
Though the State House remains closed to in-person testimony, the meeting will be televised live on Capitol Television, which can be seen on Cox Channels 15, and 61, in high definition on Cox Channel 1061, on Full Channel on Channel 15 and on Channel 34 by Verizon subscribers. It will also be live streamed here.
Documents and written testimony provided by the public will be made available here on the General Assembly website.
The House Committee on Rules is taking public testimony two different ways. Written testimony is encouraged and should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. For those who would prefer the option of providing verbal testimony, please send an email to email@example.com with the following information:
- Bill # you are testifying on.
- Your Name and Phone number (to be reached for your testimony)
- Affiliation: (if any)
Deadline to request verbal testimony for the January 21 hearing is Thursday, January 21, 2021 at 11am