THE MIGHTY POWER OF THE CHAIR
The House of Representatives passes legislation by a majority vote of 21 or more. But first, legislation must make it to the House floor through an often tortuous committee process headed by committee chairs. “That’s the rub” or, put another way, the politics of it. Here’s how it works . . .
A legislator drafts and files a bill with the House Clerk. The Clerk “reads the bill across the floor” during a floor session; then the Speaker of the House assigns the bill to any committee or committees he chooses. That’s where the politics start. Usually a bill gets referred to two committees, plus the finance committee if there’ a “fiscal note” (money) involved. Fiscal notes can also be manipulated (the higher the fiscal note, the less like a bill is to pass) - but that’s another story.
If the Speaker favors a bill, he can refer it to one committee headed by a chairman who also favors the bill. Conversely, if the Speaker opposes a bill, he can refer it to a larger number than usual number of committees (whose chairs may also oppose the bill). In addition to everything else, extra referrals can “run out the clock” and cause a bill to die when the legislature adjoins sine die. This tactic can be especially deadly to a bill during the new shorter ninety day legislative session. Running out the clock also can keep of opponent’s “fingerprints” off the corpse of the bill - because no one had to go on record for voting against it. But that’s only the beginning of the story. When the bill arrives at a committee/s, its fate is very much in the hands of that particular chair.
So how does one get to be a committee chair? First of all, only the majority political caucus has power to select committee chairs. About a week after a November general election, a closed door organizational meeting is held to elect, by secret vote of the majority caucus, the “leadership:” the speaker, majority leader, rules chair, and the two finance committee co-chairs. Next, legislators who didn’t get elected to leadership can vie for election to a committee chairmanship. Those who didn’t get elected to one committee chair, may try for election to different committee chairmanship. Then those who didn’t get elected to leadership, or to any committee chair, choose their committee memberships in order of seniority. All in all, it’s a pretty fair process.
Now here is where the power of the “mighty” committee chair comes in. When a bill is referred to a committee, the chair can exert their power to hear or to not hear a bill and, if the bill is heard at all, when to schedule it (as soon as possible, or delayed). Likewise, the chair decides how many hearings to conduct, and decides whether to bring – or not to bring - the bill to a committee vote to send it on the next committee.
If the chair decides not to hear a bill, no reason need be given. The bill then effectively dies in that committee. Sometimes a chair will exert leverage by “sitting on” a legislator’s bill in his committee, until his own personal bill is heard in some other committee. Sometimes, unfortunately, a chair may hold a bill to “punish” its sponsor for some perceived affront. What happens or doesn’t happen to a bill may come down to strategy, revenge, or “just because.”
The principal problem with all this is that important bills may be killed on the whim of only one legislator, despite the merits of an issue, despite the constituents who elected the bill sponsor, and despite the best interests of all Alaska.
Is there any remedy to the nearly unbridled power of the chair? Yes. It’s a procedure known as “rolling the chair.” However, in the current legislative culture, rolling the chair is nearly a mortal sin. It is possible for the full legislative to vote a bill out of a committee where it’s been held by a chair. But votes to “roll the chair” are difficult to win – as can be seen in the April 08 vote on HB301 in the Senate (failed 5 to 15 – not so much for the issue, but more to putting procedure – and preserving the power of a chair - ahead of the issue). In other words: procedure over principle. But one could argue that procedures are necessary for organizational cohesion and effectiveness.
Most of this power of the chair stuff is not unique to Alaska. Many other states do the same thing, and the same thing happens in the United States Congress. But just because “everyone” does something, doesn’t it make it good or bad.