A bill to allow popular, bipartisan ideas to receive hearings in the Idaho House is likely dead for 2017.
For the second year in a row, Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, proposed automatically granting House committee hearings to bills that have five Republican sponsors and five Democratic sponsors.
And, for the second year in the row, the bill finds itself in the House Ways and Means Committee, where it will likely die again.
Rubel discussed her proposal with IdahoReporter.com earlier this week. “If a bill has at least 10 co-sponsors with five from each party, that means hundreds of thousands of Idahoans of different political persuasions have representatives that want a hearing on it,” she explained. “We should at least be hearing what the public has to say in those cases.”
Under House rules, majority leadership has the power to block unfavorable legislation by simply allowing its introduction and then sticking the proposal into the House Ways and Means Committee. House rules also give a committee chairman wide latitude in deciding which bills committee members will hear in a given session.
That’s the logjam Rubel hopes to break.
“Under the current rules, committee chairmen have almost infinite power to enforce their own agendas by simply sticking bills they don't like in a drawer, never to be heard or voted on,” Rubel said.
One reason chairmen do that, she alleged, is to protect potentially vulnerable allies from hard votes.
“I think the practice is also a way for legislators to shield themselves from having to go on the record taking a position on issues that could expose them to opposition in future elections,” Rubel said. “I don't believe that public debate should be suppressed in order to protect incumbents in their bids for re-election.”
Blocking potentially controversial bills isn’t unusual, but rather a perk of holding the majority power in a statehouse. In their 1998 book, “The Kentucky Legislature: Two decades of change,” authors Malcom Jewell and Penny Miller describe a chairman’s power in a capitol.
“The chairman’s authority to post bills is an important source of power,” the authors noted. “One committee chair told us, ‘It is the only real power that a chairman has.’”
And, the authors found, chairmen use that power when expedient. “There are a number of reasons a chairman will delay or prevent consideration of a bill,” Jewell and Miller wrote. “Often, there are bills that a majority of the committee believes ought to be defeated but the members ‘might be unable to muster the fortitude to vote against it’ (as one chairman put it).”
The authors also suggested a chairman might block a bill that has little or no chance of passing.
Such might be the case, unironically, with Rubel’s proposal.
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, told IdahoReporter.com Friday he’s unlikely to allow a hearing on the resolution.
“We have established rules,” he told IdahoReporter.com. “Chairmen play a role.”
Anderst, holding a chairman post for the first time in his legislative career, stated legislators have a duty to persuade legislative leaders to grant hearings.
“You can always convince a chairman to hear a bill,” he said.