Common Cause leads fight against state Senate “power grab”

Rhode Island State House

After the Rhode Island House of Representatives approved rules that reinforced the power of the Speaker of the House, some 17 reform legislators paid the price, losing committee chairmanships and prestigious committee assignments.

Now, the state Senate is considering similar rules that its leaders say only puts in writing longstanding practice within the Senate, but that Common Cause Rhode Island characterizes as a power grab.

“It’s a big power grab,” says John Marion, executive director of Common Cause.

It’s a “power grab” that Marion and others perceive as reinforcing the perception that the most powerful individual in state government is Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello followed by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, and then Governor Gina Raimondo.

Common Cause fought unsuccessfully against the rules’ changes in the House, and now has turned its efforts toward the Senate.

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In the House, the only success by reformers was to mandate at least 24 hours (the Reform Caucus had sought 48 hours) between the introduction of a new version of legislation to when representatives vote on it. The lone exception, perhaps the most important piece of legislation, the voluminous state budget.  

In a statement about the Senate rules, found through its Facebook Page, Common Cause says:

“Common Cause Rhode Island has long been critical of the consolidation of power in the hands of leadership in the Rhode Island House. Now the Rhode Island Senate leadership is trying to make that body less transparent, accountable and democratic by making a series of changes to their rules in S 0250. We ask you to contact your state Senator and tell them to reject the proposed rules.

The proposed Senate rules contain one significant win for transparency, copying a new provision of the House rules that requires many amendments be made public 24 hours in advance of vote.

Most of the other changes proposed for 2019-2020 take the Senate backwards, making it a place where there is less accountability, transparency, and democracy. By allowing the Senate to suspend its rules using only the unanimous consent of the Majority and Minority Leaders, it takes away an important measure of accountability. For years the Senate has managed to conduct its business and put all Senators on the record about suspending the rules. The only reason for this change is to allow Senators to duck accountability.

Current practice requires a vote of the whole body to approve a change in vote by a Senator. By vesting the power to approve a change of vote in the President, the proposed rules give leadership a tool to change the outcome vote through coercion. The House rule, allowing any member to object to a changed vote, makes it less likely a single Senator could overturn the outcome of a vote.

Likewise, by changing the rules to allow the President to remove a Senator from a committee without their consent, these rules are giving another tool to Senate leadership to punish rank-and-file members who vote against their wishes. A better approach would be to require a vote of the body to remove a Senator from a committee. If the Senate leadership’s true intention is to provide a tool to admonish Senators who have embarrassed the body a better approach would be to create a graduated series of punishments as Common Cause Rhode Island suggested in 2018.”

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