Editorial & Opinion

Ahlquist: What are the costs of an inside game?

RI Rank is not simply a metric of a legislator’s positions on a scale from conservative to progressive, it also factors in a legislator’s fealty to General Assembly leadership.
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Published on December 20, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

RI Rank has released the Civil Liberty Rankings for General Assembly legislators, and overall the Senate and the House appear to have done… Okay. RI Rank bases their score on legislative votes, not the declared positions or public statements of politicians. Therefore, there is often a wide separation between how the public perceives a legislator and how the legislator actually believes.

As I explain below, RI Rank is not simply a metric of a legislator’s positions on a scale from conservative to progressive, it also factors in a legislator’s fealty to General Assembly leadership.

Most legislation never gets to the floor of the House or the Senate for a full vote. The flow of legislation is carefully controlled by Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, with the help of their leadership teams. Leadership teams are made up of second-in-commands, whips, committee chairs and co-chairs, all handpicked by leadership. The job of the leadership teams and specifically the committee chairs is not to garden legislation to fruition, but to serve as a proxy for leadership and move or block legislation as leadership demands. The committees in this sense can be thought of as one storefront in a chain of restaurants, like McDonald’s or Subway. The committee chairs are akin to store managers that run the business in line with corporate policy with no room for deviation.

Legislators can hurt their score at RI Rank by participating in legislative procedures that sideline good bills, such as “holding for further study.” What happens in this instance is that when a bill is brought to a committee for consideration, and advocates and opponents are given an opportunity to speak on the merits of the bill – nothing happens. The bill disappears from view until re-introduced in the next legislative session – usually to disappear once more into the deep hole of “further study.” Holding a bill for further study has the appearance of sound policy – it’s presented as an opportunity to figure out what changes the legislation needs in order to pass – but too often these bills are never studied further and they quietly die. Inquiries as to the status of the bill are met with vague promises that work is being done behind the scenes, but the truth is that too often the bills simply languish, held up in legislative limbo.

During a committee meeting or in private conversation a legislator may claim to support a bill, they may claim that the bill serves a valuable purpose, and they may publicly evince support for the bill, but when push came to shove, the committee member who voted to hold the bill for further study did so with the knowledge that the bill is never coming up for a proper vote on the floor. These legislators are doing the bidding of leadership and killing the bill.

This policy leaves voters guessing as to the position of their elected representatives on important issues – and if this isn’t by design, it’s a positive side effect, from the point of view of some legislators. I know of legislators who went campaigning door-to door a few years ago, carefully answering their constituents as to their position on abortion rights. At some doors they claimed to be pro-choice, while at others they claimed to be anti-choice.

Some of these legislators would quietly accept their name being on Rhode Island Right to Life‘s annual listing of anti-choice legislators, and tell inquiring reporters that they were surprised at their inclusion. In this way some members of the General Assembly could play it both ways – until eventually advocates for women’s rights forced a vote. Many legislators then made surprising votes, with some longtime abortion foes voting for the codification of Roe v Wade, and others who claimed to respect a woman’s right to choose working past all reason to prevent the legislation from passing. Voters did not know what their elected representatives really believed until the issue was honestly dealt with by the legislature.

RI Rank evaluates legislators based on their votes. This isn’t to say that a legislator can’t act in other ways. Senator Cynthia Mendes, for instance, pushed the state in a positive direction with her nightly protest of sleeping outside the State House to call attention to and demand action on the crisis of homelessness in our state. While this type of action is difficult to quantify, it’s important to note that Senator Mendes also came out on top of RI Rank’s Senate Civil Liberties Rankings, so perhaps there’s a correlation.

Some legislators who support leadership and as a result score lower in the RI Rankings might be playing an inside game, hoping to pass quality legislation at the cost of having to sometimes make bad votes in accordance with the wishes of leadership. Bad votes, like holding bills for further study, count against a legislator in the RI Rank rankings.

What legislators playing the inside game want is to pass good legislation in a bad system. In exchange for their support, leadership allows some bills that might not otherwise get a fair hearing to pass. But is the payoff equal to the cost? Has playing the inside game ever reaped rewards for Rhode Island voters equal to the continuing and devastating impacts of the cruel and classist cash bail system? Equal to the impact of the continuing evil of payday loans? Equal to the impacts of LEOBoR, which makes it difficult to hold police officers accountable? Equal to the continued criminalization of sex work, or the denial of abortion coverage for pregnant persons on Medicaid, or the continued denial of drivers licenses to undocumented workers, or the continuation of the war on drugs…

All these things are parts of a system of oppression that impact the lives of countless Rhode Islanders, and are things that our legislature could work to make more fair and less cruel. Every year we don’t pass legislation to make people’s lives better, the cost of the inside game goes up. In order to show that the inside game is worth the cost, it must be balanced against the misery of our current, unmodified systems.

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