The 53rd Session of the Oklahoma Legislature formally opened on Monday, February 7, 2011 and promptly failed its’ first test.
The Republican-led House shut down an opportunity to institute open-government rules changes, choosing instead to maintain the status-quo – the inherited top-down control of the legislative process.
Several House members failed the backbone test as well, fearful of casting a vote opposite of their party’s “leadership” vote.
[The House did pass a few rules changes but only those that dealt with bills that have been allowed to advance by leadership at the onset.]
Why the Rules are Important
At the beginning of each 2-year session, both the House and Senate adopt rules by which they will operate for those 2 years. These rules define not only the duties of the legislators and dictate their day-to-day conduct (no cussin’, swearin’, or spittin’), they determine how the legislative process will be conducted.
Just like a piece of legislation, the proposed House rules are submitted to staff at the beginning of session and assigned a bill number. The rules bill (measure), again like legislation, may be amended and its’ adoption debated. Rules must be in effect before any other actions by the legislature can proceed.
HR 1008, House Rules for the 53rd Legislature, was the only measure before the House members on Monday.
HR 1008 House Rules started from a template of last session’s rules and included changes offered by a 5-member committee who met prior to the beginning of session. (When asked by one legislator, House members were told that this committee had met prior to session, working a total of 5 hours drafting the proposed new rules.)
On Monday, 37 amendments to HR 1008 were presented for consideration by the House members.
Of the 37 proposed amendments, two were submitted by Rep. Charles Key (R- HD 90); HR1008 FA2 dealt with making bill assignments by title of law to specific committee; the other and more significant amendment, HR1008 FA3, dealt with the concept of open government.
[View the archived 02/07/2011 House Video here. The Rules discussion begins at minute marker 02:52:50; allow time for “buffering” when advancing the video stream.]
Floor Amendment 2 by Key
Floor Amendment 2 was a practical change and stated that “each committee of the House shall be assigned titles of the Oklahoma Statutes which are the responsibility of that committee. On the second reading of a bill or joint resolution, if assigned to a committee, the assignment shall be made based on the title or titles of law contained in the bill or joint resolution.” (There are 85 titles of law in Oklahoma. Each bill (measure) must specify the title or titles of law it is affecting. Common sense dictates that all bills dealing with Title 68, Revenue and Taxation, for instance, should go to one committee for consideration, and so on.)
Floor Amendment 3 by Key – The House Failure
Floor Amendment 3, aka the open government amendment, was the big kahuna. It addressed the legislative process at the front end and was the most significant of all the proposed rule changes.
This amendment stated that “After assignment to a standing or special committee, the principal author of a bill or resolution introduced on or prior to the filing deadline of the First Regular Session and the principal author of a bill or resolution introduced after the filing deadline of the First Regular Session and on or prior to the filing deadline of the Second Regular Session shall be entitled to have such bill or joint resolution considered at least four (4) legislative days prior to the final date for the Third Reading in the First Regular Session or Third Reading in the Second Regular Session respectively or prior to any date designated as a deadline for reporting bills and joint resolutions from committee if the principal author submits a request to the Chair of the committee. ”
This means that if the author of a bill submits a request to the committee Chair asking that his bill be heard in committee, and complies with specified deadlines, the bill will have to be heard in that committee. This amendment did not state, nor does it mean, that ALL the bills will heard in committee.
Floor Amendment 3 further stated, “If a bill or joint resolution is reported from committee, the bill or joint resolution shall be heard on the floor of the House prior to any date designated as a deadline for third reading and final passage if the principal author makes a written request for such consideration to the Speaker of the House…”
Again, if the principal author of a bill makes a written request to the House Speaker that he wants his bill heard on the floor (after passing out of committee) it will be heard and voted on. Period.
Why This Rule Change is Needed
It’s simple. The current practice of the Oklahoma Legislature is to allow the Committee Chair to kill any bill he/she wants, thereby limiting the bill process from the outset. Conversely, this current practice means that the Chair controls which bills are allowed to move forward. This is a tops-down, dictorial control of the legislative process.
Committee Chairs are appointed by the Speaker of the House. If an outside influence wants to control the legislative process, and determine the outcome, all they have to do is control who gets to be Speaker of the House and the Senate ProTempore. The rest is done through the power of appointment to the Committee Chair position. (Wonder which…ah…strategies….they used to get this system in place?)
The Floor Debate
The House Rules proceeded with Floor Leader Dan Sullivan (R-HD 71) introducing HR 1008. (See minute marker 02:52:52).
Three Floor Amendments, by Reps. Blackwell, Kern and Jackson, were adopted first. (03:03:28 to 03:12:00).
Next, Rep. Charles Key’s (R- HD 90) Floor Amendment 2 was introduced (03:15:00), followed by a question by Dan Sullivan. After the question, Sullivan’s next move was to table the Key amendment.
The tabling motion passed 56 Ayes to 42 Nays, (03:18:42), causing the first Key amendment to be laid aside.
Rep. Key’s Floor Amendment 3 was introduced next. (03:19:00.) After questions from the members, Rep. Ron Peters (R- HD 70, Tulsa) moved to table this amendment as well. (03:26:18).
Peters tabling motion failed by a vote of 45 Yeas/53 Nays, which kept the amendment alive.
At this point the momentum was in support of the open governement concept, acknowledging the right of bills to heard in committee, if requested.
The next 20 minutes were devoted to questions and answers about the amendment. Some questions were ridiculous, “Oh my, how would we handle this?”
Rep. Don Armes was flat out insulting about some of his constituency back home; he implied that stupid bills are suggested by folks (“you all know the kind I’m talking about”) he meets in the local coffee shop. (03:31:17) Folks in Lawton may want to give him a call and ask him exactly to whom was he referring?
Dan Sullivan (R-HD 71) debated for 10 minutes against the open government amendment. “Does that mean we have to spend the time and resources of our little time that we have in committees to deal will those bills? The answer is No.” Using a ridiculous bill about requiring cloth napkins in bar-b-que restaurants as an example of a time-wasting bill, Sullivan clearly supports top-down control of bills. “Should we spend the time and resources of this body dealing with bills like that? The answer is No. We have bigger things to do than to deal with some individual legislator’s pet project that may not be a good idea, that may not pass this body.”
Rep. Dan Sullivan has himself introduced 32 bills this session, which most likely include someone’s pet project. His HCR 1002 , co-authored by Sen. Gary Stanislawski, Commends Turkey (the country, not the bird).
Turkey, 98% Muslim and no friend of Israel, is not a constituency represented in the Oklahoma House. Perhaps Sullivan and Stanislawski meant to commend Turley, which is actually in Oklahoma?
Talk about wasting time and resources, HCR 1002 wins the prize in that category.
Whipping and Flipping the Vote
Not visible on the video as clearly as it was in the House chambers on Monday was the “whipping” of the members by Republican leadership to “flip” this 45/53 point spread to prevent passage of the Key amendment.
The “whipping” of the House members resulted in 11 members flipping their vote.
Because of the “flippers”, the Key Amendment for open government was defeated by a vote of 42 Yeas to 53 Nays. (Minute Marker 04:34:00)
The flippers included freshman* Rusty Farley, as well as Don Armes, John Enns, Mike Jackson, Charlie Joyner, Jason Nelson, T.W. Shannon, Todd Thomsen, and Colby Schwartz. Excused during this vote were Seneca Scott, Purcy Walker, Leslie Osborn, Jerry Shoemake and Sue Tibbs.
The 53 Nays (the ones who voted down the Key amendment) include: Armes, Banz, Billy, Brumbaugh, Casey, Cockroft, Coody, Cooksey, Cox, Dank, Denney, DeWitt, Enns, Farley, Faught (big disappoint here), Hall, Hardin, Hickman, Holland, Jackson, Jordan, Joyner, Kirby, Liebmann, Martin (Scott), Martin (Steve), McCullough, McDaniel (Randy), McNiel, Mulready, Nelson, Nollan, Ortega, Ownbey, Peters, Peterson (another disappointment), Quinn, Richardson, Roberts (Dustin), Roberts (Sean), Russ, Sanders, Schwartz, Sears, Shannon, Stiles, Sullivan, Thomsen, Trebilcock, Vaughn, Watson, Wright, and the Speaker Kris Steele.
All 53 Nay votes were cast by Republicans. So much for that.
Battling for Liberty, Standing on Principle
Some freshmen legislators have apparently been surprised by what one called the “lack of civility in the caucus” and are shook up at the realization that being a legislator and making law may actually involve vigorous debate and require intestinal fortitude.
What were they expecting? Polite chit-chat and a dainty legislative process? If so, perhaps they should go back home. There is going to be debate, sometimes rancorous, and disagreement.
Some of them appear, at least initially, to lack powers of discernment, not recognizing a tops-down, dictatorial control of the legislative process as being wrong. Suggest they study the history of tyrannts, and learn the difference between a representative republic, a democracy, and a dictatorship.
2011 is the time to stand up for what is right, to protect liberty, and to vigorously advocate for sound policy based on time-tested principles of good governance. It is not the time to complain that people aren’t being nice enough.
This writer respectfully suggests that certain legislators, both freshmen and tenured, should …(cough)…man up a bit. It won’t kill you.
*UPDATE 2/13/11 – Correction to the “flippers” list:- freshman Rep. John Bennett did not flip his vote on the Key amendment. He voted against tabling the amendment and stayed consistent when voting for the amendment. Thank you for the opportunity to correct this.