RI House debates potential rule changes

The Rules by which the House and Senate organize themselves serve as the operating system for the legislature. At the House Committee on Rules hearing on Wednesday, a leadership backed Rules resolution was heard, along with 11 additional resolutions from Representatives seeking to alter the rules and push them towards what the sponsors consider to be more openness and fairness.

Rhode Island News: RI House debates potential rule changes

January 19, 2023, 5:36 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Update: On Tuesday, January 25, the House Rules Committee passed 2023 — H 5051 SUBSTITUTE A. The bill now moves onto the House floor for a vote by the Chamber. Video here.

Every two years the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate establish Rules Committees to govern the process by which legislation is created, debated and passed (or not). Each chamber establishes their own rules independently through resolutions, not legislation, since the rules do not have the power of law, per se, but simply serve as the operating parameters for their respective chamber.

At the House Committee on Rules hearing on Wednesday, a leadership backed Rules resolution was heard, along with 11 additional resolutions from Representatives seeking to alter the rules and push them towards what the sponsors consider to be more openness and fairness.

The committee hearing began, like nearly all House Committee hearings do, with the Chair motioning that all the resolutions will be held for further study. Chair Kathleen Fogarty (Democrat, District 35, South Kingstown) read a statement saying, “I’d like to remind the committee that the vote in favor of holding all bills for further study is not substantive, and it does not signify any position on the merits of the bills. The motion and vote are procedural only and simply help organize the bills for hearings by allowing the Committee sufficient time to review both the verbal and written testimony.”

This is not true in practice, however. In fact, the process of holding bills for further study is often used to kill legislation that leadership does not want to pass. Holding the bills allows legislators to avoid being on record as voting – in favor of or in opposition to – potentially controversial bills. It is for this reason that RI Rank scores votes to hold for further study as a vote against the bill if the bill is never taken up. Representative David Place (Republican, District 47, Burrillville, Glocester) was the sole vote against holding the bills.

House Committee on Rules January 18, 2022

Ironically, one of the bills held for further study was H5137, from Representative Teresa Tanzi (Democrat, District 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown). This resolution, if passed, would make it easier to get bills stuck in the “held for further study” purgatory onto the House floor for a straight up or down vote.

Under this resolution, each Representative could force a committee vote on three chosen pieces of legislation “held for further study.” These bills would be voted on as they are or in a modified form. (How those modifications would be done is not clear.) If the bill passes out of committee, the legislator would have the option of moving the bill to the floor for a vote.

“Virtually no bill comes to the floor if leadership does not have the votes,” said John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island testifying on the bill. “We’d like to see more bills get up or down votes. We’d like to see more votes on the merits in committee.”

Any form of this resolution is unlikely to pass the House Rules Committee. You can view the discussion on the resolution here.

The main course for the House Rules Committee was H5051 by Chair Fogarty. This resolution would adopt the Rules of the House of Representatives for the years 2023 and 2024. The resolution is similar to the Rules adopted two years ago, with a series of major and minor changes. At least one of the changes is a reversal of a policy Representative Fogarty fought for as part of the so-called Reform Caucus in 2018. (See below for more on this.)

Ignoring changes to grammar or other minor details, Representative Fogarty’s resolution has six substantive modifications to the Rules:

  1. The rule that states that all legislation must be submitted by mid-February will no longer apply to ceremonial resolutions, such as condolences on the passing of a former politician or a congratulatory resolution. “You still have to ask permission,” from leadership for such resolutions, noted Chair Fogarty.
  2. Currently, Representatives are able to use a point of personal privilege to air grievances about what they feel to be unfair criticism in the press. The new rules would prevent Representatives from exercising this privilege over what they consider unfair social media posts.
  3. The new rules would force a bill heard in committee, that does not pass in year 2023, to be heard for a second time in committee in 2024, even if there had been no changes to the bill. This is a step back from the Rules changes argued for by the Reform Caucus in 2019. This is being reversed to avoid confusion, say supporters, since the Senate did not adopt a similar policy and the multiple bill numbers can be confusing.
  4. Upon passage, the Speaker will be able to bring to the floor any duplicate bills passed by the Senate, even if said bills did not go through the House Committee process. This has long been the case in practice, the new rules simply clarify the process.
  5. “Last minute” floor amendments to bills being debated by the full House now have to be submitted three hours before the meeting begins. This will give the Speaker and the Majority Whip much more time to counter arguments that might be made on the floor, say critics, while supporters contend that this is or the sake of legislative counsel, who need more time to create the needed documentation. John Marion testified that part-time legislators with day jobs may have difficulty complying with this rule, but the Speaker will have the option of waiving this rule.
  6. A ban on guests holding signs or “signaling” while seated in the House Chamber. “This is about the decorum of the House,” said Chair Fogarty. Watching this part of the Committee discussion was fascinating as members began reading into the legislation prohibitions that were not there. They interpreted “House floor” to be the entire chamber, including the gallery. “Holding signs” was interpreted to include tee shirts and hats, or even pins in support of or in opposition to legislation. It was enough to get this reporter to testify, reminding the legislators of the slippery slope they were embarking on.

The testimony of John Marion from Common Cause Rhode Island can be seen here.

The other resolutions:

There is a chance that some aspects of the following resolutions will be incorporated into the final Rules resolution when the Committee votes on the revised Rules sometime in the next week. Let’s take them in order (somewhat):

H5052 by Representative Patricia Serpa (Democrat, District 27, West Warwick) “amends the House Rules on what matters may be debated or spoken on the House floor.”

Representative Serpa suggested restricting a legislator’s ability to “claim the floor during a session for the purpose of speaking on a subject matter not germane to legislative business, including, but not limited to, the reading of any text, the recital of any poem, the singing of any song or the broadcast of any material using an electronic device.”

“They have no place,” said Serpa. “The rest of us frankly don’t have time for it.” The resolution seemed popular with Committee members.

H5053, by Representative Camille Vella-Wilkinson (Democrat, District 21, Warwick), “amends the House Rules to require that bills impacting veterans’ affairs as well as other subject matter only be referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs after all other committee hearings are conducted. The Committee on Veterans’ Affairs shall then act as the final arbiter to review content and recommendations by all other relevant committees.”

In practice this would require that a bill affecting veterans and having a fiscal impact would go to the Committee on Veterans after it has been heard in the Finance Committee.

H5054 by Jon Brien (Independent, District 49, Woonsocket) “amends … the House Rules regarding caucuses organized around a political party affiliation and membership thereto.” It essentially removes the rule saying that Independents must communicate their intention to caucus with the Republican or Democratic Party with the House clerk, and, if their participation in either caucus is denied, it removes the rule mandating that the Party notify the House clerk.

“This bill would apply to only one person and that would be me,” said Brien. “It signals out someone like me and this is a specific provision aimed at someone that runs as an independent. It discourages people from being independent.”

Committee member Representative Brian Newberry noted that the last independent elected was Blake Filippi, former Minority leader, who was initially elected as a Republican. The rule then was unknown and not enforced.

Two similar bills:

H5130 by Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy (Democrat, District 38, Westerly, Hopkinton), would “amend the house rules to use the electronic voting system to electronically record any member seconding a motion when multiple members second any motion.”

H5132 from Representatives Newberry and Place “would amend the house rules to provide for the electronic recording of members seconding a motion or action when there are more than five members seconding the motion or action.”

Right now seconds are recorded by having Representatives stand and be noted by name by the Speaker. During Covid, this was done electronically. These resolutions would streamline the process of recording seconds if passed.

H5131 by Representative Gregory Costantino (Democrat, District 44, Lincoln) “amends the House Rules to permit a member to vote by proxy when the member is unable to be physically present due to a health condition.”

Constantino noted his medical issues last term and the use of distance voting during Covid, suggested the rules change. Is this a gerontocracy issue? Unrelated to Representative Costantino’s bill, Representative Newberry noted that only three members of the Rules committee have not been elected to six terms or more.

H5133 by Newberry and Place “requires that all legislative grants allocated to the senate be distributed in accordance with the rules of the Senate and that all legislative grants allocated to the House of Representatives be divided equally among the 75 legislative districts.”

Every year the Joint Committee on Legislative Services (JCLS) budgets money for Senate and House members to give out legislative grants to local charitable organizations and causes. “The process is a little opaque,” noted Representative Newberry. The proposed resolution would mandate that legislative grants be split equally among participating House members. The specific targets of the grants would still require approval from the Speaker.

H5134 by Representatives Newberry and Place “would permit any committee member to hold a substitute bill which is moved for consideration for a period of 24 hours.” The idea is to give committee members more time to understand the bills they need to vote on, said Newberry.

The last two bills work in “conjunction” with each other, said Representative Newberry.

H5135 by Representatives Newberry and Place “would require the Clerk of the House to prepare and publish in the House Journal an index of all rulings made by the Speaker.”

H5136 by Representatives Newberry and Place “requires the House Clerk to publish certain information regarding decisions made by the Speaker and appeals by members to the decisions.”

This is in the service of more openness, stresses Representative Newberry.

Committee Chairs:

  • Chair Representative Kathleen Fogarty (Democrat, District 35, South Kingstown)
  • First Vice ChairRepresentative William O’Brien (Democrat, District 54, North Providence)
  • Second Vice Chair Representative Patricia Serpa (Democrat, District 27, West Warwick)


  • Representative Samuel Azzinaro (Democrat, District 37, Westerly)
  • Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence)
  • Representative Grace Diaz (Democrat, District 11, Providence)
  • Representative Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 11, Providence)
  • Representative Brian Patrick Kennedy (Democrat, District 38, Westerly, Hopkinton)
  • Representative Joseph McNamara (Democrat, District 19, Warwick)
  • Representative Brian Newberry (Republican, District 48, North Smithfield)
  • Representative Robert Phillips (Democrat, District 51, Woonsocket)
  • Representative David Place (Republican, District 47, Burrillville, Glocester)
  • Representative Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick)

Absent members

  • Representative Scott Slater (Democrat, District 10, Providence)
  • Representative Alex Marszalkowski (Democrat, District 52, Cumberland)

Representative Michael Chippendale (Republican, District 40, Coventry, Foster Glocester) in his capacity as House Minority Leader, was present in an ex officio capacity.