Give credit to Rep. Christy Zito for attempting to breathe life into a government ethics bill that was doomed to die without a hearing. Her procedural tactic failed on a lopsided 59-10 vote, and Zito was criticized for her attempt. But Zito was right to try, and her critics are wrong to suggest the tactic was out of the ordinary, politically untenable, or tantamount to leading an insurrection against House Speaker Scott Bedke.
Maybe it’s not lawmakers’ fault for thinking that way. In recent years, the Idaho Legislature has been laboring under the inaccurate presumption that Bedke and others in House and Senate leadership have unilateral authority on all matters. A myth has developed that suggests that anyone who dares to question any decision is, at a minimum, violating protocol and at most inviting anarchy. It’s a false narrative. At the risk of being trite, it is “fake news.”
So, what did Zito do to invite the ire of her colleagues? She forced a vote on a personal bill that would stop lawmakers from being able to accept lavish gifts from lobbyists. A personal bill is a measure that is introduced by an individual legislator without first obtaining the blessing of a committee. Bedke routed Zito’s bill to the House Ways and Means Committee, the designated place where personal bills go to die. She next moved to send the bill to the House State Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over lobbying matters. The House rejected her motion.
Bedke later told a reporter that by sending a personal bill to die in Ways and Means, "I am not doing anything that has not been done for decades here.” But Speaker Bedke is incorrect. Personal bills have long been viewed as another avenue to secure legislative introduction. It’s risky; a bill that bypasses a committee could gain quick attention, and sometimes that’s all a personal bill is intended to do. Other times, a personal bill is a serious attempt to win support that leads to passage.
As recently as 2011, 2012, and 2013, plenty of bills have appeared on the floor as personal bills. Such bills were routed to their appropriate committees, including State Affairs, Revenue and Taxation, or Business. Personal bills routinely have been granted hearings and have become law. In Bedke’s first year as speaker, at least seven personal bills were introduced, none of which was channeled to Ways and Means. Contrary to Bedke's words [or belief or memory], it was only four years ago, in 2014, that this "decades" old tradition began.
Furthermore, the rules that govern the Legislature allow members to question a decision made by the speaker or Senate president when a bill is referred to one committee or another. It doesn’t happen often, but it does occur. On March 4, 2005, Sen. Bart Davis was unhappy that a bill was being directed to the Senate State Affairs Committee. Davis led an effort to redirect the legislation instead to the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee. Davis’ effort resulted in a tie vote. Then-Senate President Jim Risch broke the tie, and Davis got his wish.
I recall running into Senate Pro Tem Bob Geddes in the hallway that day. He was livid with Risch for his tie-breaking vote, not with Davis for his motion. At no point did anyone consider Davis a threat to legislative tradition or authority. He wasn’t proclaimed a mutineer. The move didn’t invite tyranny, nor did it end Davis’ political life. He’s now the U.S. attorney for the state of Idaho, having left the Legislature after nearly two decades in office.
The processes of the state Legislature are designed to give all 105 members power. Though legislative leaders may seem to be acting unilaterally, all of their actions occur with the blessing of the body, the House or Senate, or committee members.
The highest motivation of a legislator should be to advance liberty and defend the U.S. and state constitutions. The attempt to force the fair consideration of a bill rooted in those values is a greater measure of an elected official’s worth than the willingness of that official to defer to an oligarchical command structure.
Wayne Hoffman is president of Idaho Freedom Foundation. Research by Janae Wilkerson.