Editorial & Opinion

Nathan Cornell: Rhode Islanders must reign in the power of the Speaker and Senate President

Two people deciding laws is not a republic. It is despotism.
Photo for Nathan Cornell: Rhode Islanders must reign in the power of the Speaker and Senate President

Published on July 27, 2022
By Nathan Cornell

Article IV Section 4 of the United States Constitution states, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government…” 181 years ago, a group of Rhode Islanders who came to be referred to as the Dorrites, under the leadership of Thomas Wilson Dorr, started a movement to enforce this section of the Constitution by giving Rhode Island a state constitution guaranteeing a republican form of government. Up until 1841-1842, when this movement took place, Rhode Island did not have a state constitution and relied on the Royal Charter granted to Rhode Island in 1663. Most Rhode Islanders also didn’t have a right to vote, that right only being held by yankee landowners. So other groups, especially those that worked as laborers, which included most Irish Americans, did not have a right to vote. The Dorrite movement to create a state constitution and expand the right to vote to non-landowning Rhode Islanders led to the Dorr Rebellion which was basically a short civil war in Rhode Island where there were two governors, two legislatures, and two constitutional conventions.

Due to the public support of the Dorrites, the main Rhode Island government agreed to put a state constitution to the voters, a constitution that met many of the demands of the Dorrites. If that were the end of it, things would have gone smoothy. Unfortunately, the Dorrites didn’t compromise, and the Dorrites defeated the main Rhode Island government’s constitution in their election while the Dorrite constitution was not accepted as legitimate. This eventually culminated with both sides meeting in a battlefield where a cannon malfunctioned, the Dorrites dispersed, and Thomas Wilson Dorr was convicted of treason against the state. After a prison sentence, he was released, but he soon died a broken man. After his death, his term as Governor was made legitimate and now, his portrait resides in the Capitol Building on Smith Hill.

While the Dorrites made many strategic errors, they were right about the need for a state constitution guaranteeing a republican form of government and the need to expand the suffrage. Their actions led to the state government holding another constitutional convention in 1842, where Rhode Island finally developed a state constitution. That constitution, put to the voters and approved in an election later that year, included provisions that expanded the suffrage. 

The reason I am going over this important piece of Rhode Island history is because Rhode Island still doesn’t have a republican form of government. If things were run according to the state constitution, it might be, but most of Rhode Island’s laws are decided by two people: the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. For over 100 years, individuals holding these positions have abused their power by blocking legislation from getting hearings in committees, refusing to let bills reach the floor of the House and Senate, preventing bill proposals from becoming actual bills, throwing legislators off of committees for voting in a way not to their liking, and not allowing the legislation of state representatives and senators to pass unless they show absolute loyalty. The offices of Speaker and Senate President have basically become dictatorial positions in Rhode Island. Legislators live in fear of opposing the Speaker and Senate President, or risk facing political punishment.

Two people deciding laws is not a republic. It is despotism.

What people might find interesting is that the powers of the Speaker and Senate President are not stated in the Rhode Island State Constitution. The Speaker, for example, is only mentioned three times in the state constitution. In Article VI Section 3. “…the president of the senate and the speaker of the house shall be compensated at an annual rate double that of other senators and representatives.” In Article VII Section 2. “The house of representatives shall have authority to elect its speaker, clerk, and other officers.” In Article IX Section 10. “If the offices of governor and lieutenant governor be both vacant by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, or inability to serve, the speaker of the house of representatives shall in like manner fill the office of governor in such vacancy.” 

That’s it. 

The state constitution doesn’t give any real power to the Speaker of the House nor the President of the Senate. Their powers are derived from the House and Senate rules, which are approved every two years by the respective legislative bodies. Therefore, if most of the legislators in the House and Senate refused to grant any powers to the Speaker and Senate President, the dictatorship of the Speaker and Senate President would end. Sadly, most legislators would have to be convinced to overcome their fear of political reprisal in order to vote to change the rules. Also, a future legislature could easily change the rules back, reinstating the Speaker and Senate President’s power. The best way to permanently eliminate the powers of the Speaker and Senate President is to create an amendment to the State Constitution, outlining the powers and limitations of the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate.

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The role of the Speaker and Senate President should be to preside over the legislative body, enforce parliamentary procedure, and appoint committee members with the consent of the whole legislative body – nothing more. All other powers should be vested in the General Assembly. The Speaker and Senate President should also be non-partisan positions, like in the British House of Commons, to ensure they are unbiased in legislative proceedings. If a representative or senator is elected to the leadership position, they would have to resign from the political party they are affiliated with as long as they hold that position. The Speaker and Senate President should also be elected through a secret ballot. This would mean that the legislators’ votes will be anonymous so there would be no political retaliation against them for voting for another candidate other than the winner.

There are other Constitutional amendments that are needed, but I will mention those in a separate piece.

The steps needed to achieve this Constitutional Amendment so Rhode Island will be closer to a true republic is to have it introduced in the next session of the General Assembly. However, the Speaker and Senate President could just prevent the proposal from becoming a bill. That is what happened to me, three years ago, when I asked a state representative to put forward a bill to create a state constitutional amendment to limit the powers of the Speaker and Senate President. Nicholas Mattiello, who was Speaker at the time, refused to allow it to become a bill.

So in my opinion the only way to get this constitutional amendment through the legislature, so it can go to the voters for the 2024 election, is to create a new political movement, a movement involving Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, to push for this and other constitutional amendments to make Rhode Island a true republic in accordance with Article IV Section 4 of the United States Constitution. Such a movement could derive its name from those that pushed for the same thing 181 years ago. The New Dorrites, as they could be called, would peaceably push for these reforms by convincing legislators to support these constitutional amendment proposals and stand up against the Speaker, Senate President, and others who use their unconstitutional powers to intimidate and threaten state legislators. Without the support of the majority of the General Assembly, the Speaker and Senate President will have no power. Nor would majority leaders and whips. 

Democratic and Republican legislators and other elected officials can all be New Dorrites, and not have to agree on anything else but these Constitutional Amendment proposals to ensure a true republic. I believe most Rhode Islanders would support such a government over the despotism we have today.

Some say, “This will never happen. Rhode Island has always been this way.” I say that if we stay complacent and do nothing, that will be true. But Rhode Island doesn’t have to stay this way. If most Rhode Islanders stand up and demands the republic we are entitled to, things will change. 

For those who say, “Never say anything bad about or oppose the Speaker and Senate President or you will be politically punished,” I say, “If we do nothing, more people will be politically punished, but if we act, they will lose the power to politically punish anybody.”

With courage and the Constitution on our side, change can happen, and we can turn Rhode Island from being one of the most corrupt states in the union into the truest republic and representative democracy in the world.

You can reach Nathan Cornell at ncornell@my.uri.edu

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