Rules Debate Begins: Majority Power, Minority Voice

A hearing on 34 proposed changes to the rules was held on Monday, and by Wednesday, the Rules committee members had voted to send 16 of those to the floor for consideration. I’d generally lump these into two thematic groups: some were technical changes, process improvements to legislative operations, codifying existing practices, and streamlining debate procedure. The other bunch were more consequential and aimed at either preventing extensive filibustering, restricting the ability of the minority or dissenters in the body to impact debate, or other more substantial changes to legislative norms with significant implications.

Debate began on the more technical, noncontroversial of those proposals Thursday, with the body first taking up for debate those that had received a unanimous vote of approval by the Rules committee. Many lawmakers- mostly those in the minority- spoke at length about the need to protect institutional norms and the importance of being very cautious and deliberative before making rash or reactive changes to longstanding rules in response to last year’s session that many have called an anomaly. There were other ways to avoid the turmoil that unfolded, some said, and rule-making our way out of it might not be the quick fix some hope it is, with potential consequences down the road. Once made, rules can be hard to change, and the makeup of the body could shift in future years as the data shows more and more Nebraskans are moving away from rural areas toward urban centers.

Speaker Arch has been clear that his goal for this rules debate- and the session more broadly- is to clarify and preserve checks and a balance between the majority’s power and the minority’s voice in the legislature. That is, when the majority in power can ultimately exert its will, it is the right of the minority to have their counterpoints heard and considered, he has said, not to boundlessly obstruct measures they don’t like.

Thursday’s debate resulted in the approval of two rule changes proposed by Speaker Arch: First, a proposal that makes permanent a temporary change they enacted last year to prevent senators in the minority from using priority motions to stall debate. This year’s version is slightly tweaked: it says only one of the three priority motions can be used per stage of debate, rather than per day per stage of debate. The second approved proposal allows for the use of cloture motions on other motions and resolutions. This is intended to prevent things like gubernatorial appointments and other procedural housekeeping-type items on the agenda from being used to filibuster.

Debate over the remaining 14 proposals will resume on Tuesday after the Monday Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and is expected to take up the entirety of this week. Speaker Arch has affirmed his commitment to calling a hard stop to the rules debate sometime on Friday the 19th.

After another day or two of debate on the less divisive changes, expect some drama mid-to-late week as senators tackle “the big ones.” These are four particularly hot-button rule change proposals that have both ardent supporters and staunch critics in the body. They will probably generate the most heat on the legislative floor because of the implications they carry: for the debate and voting process, for who can win leadership roles, for how proceedings are reported, and for senators’ ability to introduce legislation- each of these changes could have a major impact. The top four we’re watching:

  • Roll Call vote for committee chairs (Erdman): Eliminates the current anonymous process of voting for committee chairs, requiring senators to cast their votes aloud. This is designed to force partisan pressure to play a role in who senators vote for to head a committee, rather than current practice which allows them to vote their conscience and pick who they think is most qualified.
  • Lower cloture threshold (Erdman): Cloture is the major goal post for supporters of a bill that is being filibustered, a motion which, if successful, immediately cuts off debate and forces a vote on the bill. Currently, it requires 2/3rds of the legislature’s 49 members, or the magic 33 we’ve come accustomed to counting to. Erdman’s proposal would change that requirement to two thirds of those present and voting, with a minimum of 25. This would make it easier for the majority to pass extreme legislation.
  • Close executive sessions to media (Erdman): Executive sessions are private meetings among committee members to discuss a bill and take a vote on whether to advance or amend it. Currently, executive sessions are closed to the public, but credentialed media members are allowed to sit in and report on those discussions. Supporters say that the presence of reporters inhibits senators from being fully candid in their discussions about controversial bills, and that it’s important they feel free to speak openly to one another. Opponents say it’s an important part of the media’s job to get a complete picture of how policies are shaped and to share that accurately with the public; and that this moderate degree of transparency is an important piece of maintaining the public’s trust.
  • Limit on bills per senator (Hansen): Would limit each senator to 14 bills per session. Any senator who introduces 5 or less bills would get an additional priority designation. Some say the number of bills has been far too high in recent years, and this would help senators be more judicious about which bills are ready for introduction, reduce time spent in committee hearings, and potentially grant more time for bill debate. Critics say this arbitrary limit is unfair and unnecessary and that it’s a senator’s prerogative to bring whatever legislation he or she sees fit to address the needs of his or her district or the state.

For senators who are opposed to these changes, the strategy may be to burn up as much time as possible on those already scheduled less sticky proposals in hopes that the 19th arrives, Speaker Arch holds to his word on ceasing debate, and they run out of time to reach a vote on those Big 4.

The deadline for senators to introduce new bills for the year comes on Wednesday, the 10th day of the session; and Governor Pillen will deliver his annual State of the State address on Thursday.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall