Walking door to door many legislators, including myself, heard constituents complain about how business is done at the State House and the immense power of the speaker. That’s why a group of 19 representatives, known as The Reform Caucus, joined together last September with the common goal of creating a more open, transparent and efficient legislative process.
The Reform Caucus is advocating for the creation of the Office of the Inspector General and enacting line-item veto as well as four "common-sense" changes to the House Rules. The recommendations include: suspension of rules, require changes to bills be available 48 hours before a committee vote, allow bills to be kept alive for two years if introduced in the first year for greater efficiency, and allow a discharge petition to be circulated on the House floor by the sponsor — a practice that was stopped in 2005. All of these recommendations will help stop the hundreds of bills that are passed late in the evening during the end-of-session rush.
During the last week of session, the speaker "suspends the rules" with the consent of the Republican Minority Leader and Democrat Majority Leader. This means bills do not have to be posted for 48 hours and the 10 p.m. curfew ends. We ask for 48 hours, but would settle with 24-hour notice on amendments to bills. It’s so important for the public and legislators to have time to read a bill before a vote.
The Reform Caucus recommends the House Rules be suspended only by a two-thirds majority vote in the House. Why a vote by all reps? This puts elected officials on the record. We all have to explain to our constituents why we voted to "suspend the rules" and not make the bills public. It’s about transparency and accountability.
The Reform Caucus seeks transparency and that’s why we recommend that any substantial change or amendment to a bill (known as a SUB A) should be made public for 48 hours. When rules are suspended changes to bills come into committee all the time without notice. Legislators and the public need time to read changes to a bill and not be rushed into a vote. We have a duty to ensure there aren’t unintended consequences.
This is not about any one person, it’s about the process. The public has a right to know what laws are being created because we all will have to live by them.
One of the wonkier policy issues we’re recommending is the Discharge Petition. John Marion from Common Cause (who supports our reforms) explains it using the movie, Legally Blonde 2, because the plot is about a discharge petition.
If a majority of representatives (38 or more) sign a petition then the bill comes out of committee (it’s discharged) and onto the House floor for a vote. Why does this matter? The speaker decides whether to release a bill. Now, a representative has a way to get a bill onto the House floor for a vote. The last discharge petition was in 2002 when Nick Gorham got 38 signatures for Separation of Powers (voters approved it). After that, House Rules were changed. Today, a discharge petition sits on the desk under the eyes of the speaker so he sees who is signing it; and may ask them to remove their name so it never gets to 38 signatures. It’s wonky, but if you watch Legally Blonde 2 you’ll understand how the congresswoman walked the floor getting 200 signatures to pass a bill for her dog (hey, it’s Hollywood).
We’re fighting for you inside the State House, but the public has to express support for these changes. Only a groundswell from the public will create change in the way business is conducted. You can call or email the speaker, members of House Rules Committee, and your rep. Let them know you support these good government initiatives. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
Rep. Deborah Ruggiero serves District 74 (Jamestown/Middletown) and is a member of the Reform Caucus along with Rep. Lauren Carson (Newport) and Rep.Terri Cortvriend (Portsmouth/Middletown).