Reclaiming Our Government: First, Learn the Nuts of Bolts of How it Works

The Oklahoma Legislature kicked off its 2013 session today.

Governor Mary Fallin — the first woman governor in state history — delivered her State of the State address. What this means is that she laid out her legislative proposals for the year. In Oklahoma, the Governor proposes; the legislature disposes.

Oklahoma’s legislature is no paper tiger. We are not shorn lambs like Congress. The Governor’s proposals will most likely come out of the legislative process — if they survive the process at all — looking very different that they did when the Governor described them today.

After we heard the State of the State, it was on to the bi-annual fight over the House Rules. I am not a big fan of these Rules. It seems that every two years the new Speaker re-writes the Rules in ways that concentrate more of the power in his hands and makes it harder for members of the House to pass legislation or introduce amendments that he doesn’t want.

The stated purpose of the House Rules is to facilitate order. But in actual practice they have become a means of shutting down debate and concentrating power in one pair of hands.

This matters to people who don’t live in Oklahoma because we are not unique in this. Using the rules to increase the power of the leadership has become the trend in many states, as well as Congress.

If you wonder why you keep voting for change and getting the same old thing, rules like these are one reason. I think it’s important for you to learn about these things. The first step in taking back our government is to learn how we’re losing it in the first place.

Two of the things I am going to list as troubling did not originate with this speaker. My criticisms are not about personalities. They are about process and how that process works to either increase the people’s ability to be heard in the legislature, or to decrease it.

More and more people of both parties are becoming jaded and cynical about our government. I think one of the reasons why is the over-weaning influence of special interests who often act in opposition to what is best for the people of the community, state or nation.

If we’re going to change this, ordinary citizens need to learn more about legislative processes. These processes begin with the governing rules of legislative bodies. Boring and dry as these rules are, they affect your life. My advice is to follow through after you read this post and check out the rules which govern the legislature in your state.

Here are some of the rules I find most troubling, and the reasons why:

1. Recorded votes. A recorded vote is just what it says. It’s a vote that is recorded in the House Journal and will be there for citizens to see. Recorded votes give the people the ability to see what their elected officials are really doing with the power they’ve given them.

According to Oklahoma’s House Rules, a House member who wants a recorded vote on most House actions, must first request the recorded vote, then he or she must get 15% of the House membership to  stand up and “second” this request.

Obviously, the reason for this rule is to make it harder to get a vote on the record, where the people can see it.

Personally, I think every vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House  of Representatives should be a recorded vote. My feeling is that if you’re ashamed of your votes and want to hide them, you probably shouldn’t be voting that way.

I make it a point to stand up and “second” any request for a record vote, even if I don’t agree with the vote itself. I may, and I have, “second” a request for a recorded vote, then turn around and vote against the action in question.

2. Killing not just bills. Killing ideas. If a committee chairman doesn’t hear a bill in their committee, the whole idea behind the bill is “dead” for the rest of the legislative session. What that means is that it can’t be introduced as an amendment in any other bill. Not just the legislation, but the whole idea behind it is “dead” for the two years of the legislative session.

This rule gives one person — the committee chairman — the power to arbitrarily kill any idea that is brought before his or her committee for the life of an entire legislative session. Since the House Speaker appoints the committee chairs, this means that the Speaker can decide not only the future of any bill in the Oklahoma Legislature, but the future of ideas themselves. This is too much power to put in one man or woman’s hands.

3. Keeping legislators in line. If the leadership uses the committee process to kill a bill that is sufficiently popular, there has always been the fail-safe provision that legislators could work together and “sign it out of committee over the chairman’s head.” What this means is that if 2/3 of the legislators signed a petition asking that a bill come out of a committee, it would be automatically taken out of the committee and put where it could come to a vote of the whole House.

This was used successfully against a Speaker last year. The legislators who did it got the signatures on a petition that was printed on paper and managed to force a vote on the bill in question.

The new rule would require that all signatures to sign a bill out of committee would have to be filed electronically with the House computer system. This is being touted as a reform to allow “transparency.” What it is in reality is a method of controlling this process by letting the Speaker know the minute someone signs this petition. That would allow the Speaker ample opportunity to arm twist and bully the person to remove their name. It could also intimidate many members into not signing the petition in the first place.

This rule, like the others I’ve mentioned, works to keep elected officials in line and stop them from influencing the legislative process. They concentrate power in the hands of the leadership and often reduce the House membership to a rubber stamp.

Boring details of the legislative process like these rules matter to you whether you know it or not. They affect how responsive your government is going to be to the people, or, on the other side, how controlled it will be by special interests.

These rules affect the roads you drive on, the schools your children attend, how much taxes you pay and whether or not your values will be railroaded out of existence by a hostile government.

The rules I’ve described help special interests who want to “wire” the legislature to work for them and not the people. All they have to do is convince one person, the House Speaker, and they can run the whole House of Representatives through him.

Ordinary citizens, who can’t hire professional lobbyists who understand these arcane rules and know how to “work” them, are at an absolute diadvantage in their own government. The truth is, when someone silences your Representative, they are also silencing you.

Not only that, but a government as controlled as the one these kinds of rules creates can not think effectively about the challenges it will inevitably face. There is a reason why Democracies are more creative than dictatorships. It’s because mind on mind generates ideas. But when one person can kill any idea and effectively stop all debate and conversation about that idea for any reason, stultifcation sets in.

The great creative strength of Democracy smoothers, withers and dies under dictatorial rules.

I’m writing this because I love my country. Government has got to become more responsive to the needs of the American people.

It will never do that on its own. If we are going to reclaim our government from the special interests, we must begin by understanding nuts and bolts things like the ones I’ve described here.


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