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Editorial & Opinion

Jackie Goldman: The General Assembly needs more democracy

“Rhode Islanders are increasingly aware and outraged that our political system is broken. We will continue to unearth and highlight the barriers to democracy created by the so-called “democratic” establishment. We will continue to show up to hearings, we will continue to call on our legislators to fix the system, and we will continue to run anti-establishment candidates to take back power for the people.”

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Democracy is the foundation of our nation. In schools, students are taught how our nation’s founders fought to establish a government for the people, by the people. They’re taught that every citizen has the right to participate in the democratic process and that this right is guaranteed through our hard-won Constitution. We are continuously fed the story that if we work hard enough to get our voices heard, we can influence policy and create the city, town, state and nation that we most want to see.

We are lucky here in Rhode Island. We live in a small geographic state where our lawmakers work no more than an hour drive from where we live. Before the pandemic, constituents would routinely flood the State House, making demands of their lawmakers. Even during the pandemic, committee hearings have remained open to the public. In fact, participating in hearings has never been easier; instead of waiting in a hearing room for hours where it is impossible to hear what is going on, constituents can testify by making a simple phone call. This has led to a record number of calls from constituents, longer committee meetings, and increased democratic participation. However, as constituents have organized to make their voices heard, members of the General Assembly (GA) have responded, not with eagerness to hear from those they are supposed to represent, but with measures to silence those voices. In order to maintain the status quo and set aside more progressive agendas, members of the General Assembly have resorted to a process that is inherently anti-democratic.

One of the ways in which the GA has tried to limit democracy has been the consistent use of “holding bills for further study.” Holding a bill is supposed to mean that the GA along with lawyers make sure the bill is implementable. In actuality, it means that the bill will not get a committee vote and will not make it to the floor for consideration. The leadership within the GA has weaponized this part of the legislative process. In instances where popular opinion differs from that of leadership, leadership will keep the bill from advancing, effectively disenfranchising constituents. This year almost all bills heard in committee have been held for further study before hearing any testimony meaning that there is little pretense that committee members are even listening to the concerns of constituents and stakeholders. Further, because bill sponsors are not allowed to reintroduce their own bills, this practice has effectively killed bills immediately. Instead, that power lies with the committee chairs, who are all chosen by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Essentially, the only bills that get second hearings or votes are the ones that a single person, Ruggerio, supports.

Not only is the GA using this one process to make sure that their agendas are followed precisely, they have also changed the rules, which is unsurprising because the GA has a long history of using rules to concentrate power. On March 24, the Rhode Island State Senate passed their rules for the 2021 session and, unfortunately, they continued that trend of limiting democratic processes. The new rules created provisions allowing committee chairs to force any person giving testimony do so under oath. Opponents to this change, such as the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, explain these rules “will have the inevitable effect of chilling the exercise of First Amendment rights” because constituents will not want to testify if they fear criminal sanctions or retribution for accidentally making a false statement under oath. A number of senators attempted to pass amendments to the rules that would make the process more democratic, such as allowing a bill sponsor to reintroduce a bill that has been held for further study, changing the process of electing committee chairs, and allowing discussion to happen after a motion has been made, but all failed.

Many people are unable to closely track things like rules votes or the legislative process in general. However, those votes as well as the legislators in leadership positions play an integral part in the (anti)democratic processes of our General Assembly, especially when legislators break from the established norms. For example, on March 3, Senators Bell and Calkin moved to pass S 109, a resolution to urge our federal delegates to push for Medicare-For-All. They were able to actually pass this resolution out of committee by using a simple fluke of the alphabet. As votes were taken in alphabetical order, Bell and Calkin set the tone for passage, and the rest of the committee followed suit. However, the chair of the committee, Senator Joshua Miller, was upset about this vote, and was the only person in committee to vote “no.” As committee chair, he has since changed how voting happens in committee. In subsequent Health committee meetings, voting has followed committee rank. Thus, Chairman Miller votes first, and everyone else who votes after is pressured to vote with him or face repercussions from leadership. You can watch the video of this hearing here; the vote on S 109 starts at 2:53:35.

These are just two examples of how legislators have changed processes in the state house to uphold their power this past year, but it is part of a much longer pattern in Rhode Island. Though increased participation has led to increased crackdowns on the democratic process, we cannot stop fighting. On the contrary, we have to fight harder, organize more efficiently, and put pressure on our elected officials to support their constituents over their own fiscal or special interest. At different points in history, legislators have fought back against political corruption and organized within their ranks to create change. For example, in 2018, 21 representatives joined forces to create the Reform Caucus, whose primary focus was to stand up to Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattielo and reform the rules in the Rhode Island House of Representatives (Mattielo was defeated in this past election cycle at least in part because his power mongering was very obvious and constituents were enraged). Though this organizing happened among the ranks of the GA, constituents can and should push their elected leaders to fix the processes within the State House.

Rhode Islanders are increasingly aware and outraged that our political system is broken. We will continue to unearth and highlight the barriers to democracy created by the so-called “democratic” establishment. We will continue to show up to hearings, we will continue to call on our legislators to fix the system, and we will continue to run anti-establishment candidates to take back power for the people.

About the Author

Jackie Goldman is an activist and political organizer with the Providence DSA.