In order for a legislator to be effective, they are obligated to first, be loyal to House leadership and their party; second, to their committees; and third, to their constituents. Here, I intend to explain why loyalty to committees is so important in the hierarchy of loyalty.
My goal writing this is to educate the public about the institutional challenges we face in the State House with the hope we can come together to create solutions. My intent is not to attack anyone or any specific party. I believe elected officials are public servants doing the best they can in the system we have.
Committees are responsible for dealing with legislation related to a specific topic area. After a bill is introduced on the House floor, the speaker, in consultation with the House clerk, determines which committee the bill will start in. Sometimes bills will go through multiple committees because they deal with multiple topics. Each committee has a chair, vice chair and ranking member. Legislators submit their top five committee choices at the beginning of the session. Committee assignments and leadership positions are assigned by the speaker at the beginning of each biennium. Assigning committees is one of the greatest powers the speaker has.
When legislators say there is no partisanship in the House, they are referring to the committee process. In 2019, 734 bills were introduced in both the House and Senate; 114 of those bills were passed; two were vetoed by the governor. Without staff, it is impossible for legislators working four days a week, five months of the year, to be familiar with all the bills coming through the Legislature. Even if a legislator was able to read all the bills which come to a vote, which I have heard Sen. Alice Nitka does, they would still not be familiar with all the information that came with crafting the bill. They will not have been able to listen to all of the testimony from all the witnesses, and some bills have more than 50 witnesses and can take months, even years, to draft.
The committee process forces legislators to trust their colleagues on different committees to do their due diligence to ask the right questions, to speak to the right witnesses, and ultimately to come up with the best bill possible before it comes to the House floor for a vote. For this reason, almost all floor amendments are defeated, and that is why almost every bill was passed that came out of committee to the House floor this past session.
On the House floor, 76 legislators, or a majority of those voting, need to be influenced to pass, change or kill a bill. In a committee, a legislator only has to influence 4-6 legislators to do the same thing. This is why an individual legislator’s greatest strength lies in crafting the bill in committee. A legislator can stall a bill by asking to bring in more witnesses, they can interrogate witnesses, they can build small alliances, request language changes, and ultimately kill or advance bills, but all of this depends on having good relations with, and respect among, your committee members.
When I first entered the House, I was told by another legislator it is okay to disagree with and vote against your committee while in committee and even when the bill comes to the floor. But, it is not wise to get up and speak or advocate against a bill once it comes to the floor from their committee for a vote, if one wants to maintain good relations with their committee members. Because, without trust, respect and good relations with committee members, a legislator is completely powerless to effect any change in the House of Representatives.
The challenge of this is: Most legislators cannot know the ins-and-outs of every bill that comes to the House floor and so put their trust in their colleagues to do the work for them. In other words, those legislators most qualified to present the most logical and therefore influential arguments against a bill, will not do so for their own best interests of maintaining good relationships with their committee.
This is completely rational logic, but it unfortunately hinders constructive democratic dialogues, and reinforces the power of the leadership who ultimately decide which bills go to the floor for a vote.
On a recent Malcolm Gladwell podcast, he was talking about systems designed for “Tortoises,” which may be slow and methodical, while systems designed for “Hares” might require quick decisions and fast thinking. I thought about this in the context of political systems. A dictatorship, monarchy or tyranny is a Hare because an individual or small group of people can make quick decisions without much input from outsiders. Tortoise-oriented systems, such as democratic processes, seek to hear from many different interests and perspectives in order to come up with most inclusive, representative and long-lasting policy solutions.
Democratic processes do not function when the systems no longer seek to hear input from everyone, and when people themselves are not engaged. I myself do not have any solutions to our systemic problems. The best solutions come from a multitude of people from diverse backgrounds working together for a common cause or understanding. But, I do know solutions are not limited to state- and federal-level politics; they start at the local level. This month, Democratic, Republican and Progressive party town caucuses are meeting to choose leadership as part of “Reorganization.”
Help protect our democratic process by showing up at your local town caucus meeting, asking questions and voting for good local leadership.
Zachariah Ralph is a progressive from Windsor County serving in the House of Representatives.