Common Cause Rhode Island blasts nullification of ethics voteMarch 14th, 2013 at 2:57 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
The leadership of the House Judiciary Committee nullified the valid votes of members of the General Assembly last night, and both democracy and the people of Rhode Island are the poorer for it.
In the words of the House Majority Leader’s legal counsel, “the rules matter,” but that is only if the rules are followed – in nullifying votes, they were not. We believe this decision, that House Leadership has itself labeled unprecedented, to erase the votes of democratically elected representatives disenfranchises the constituents of Representatives Almeida, Ajello, Blazejewski, Costa, Craven, Martin and Walsh.
The House leadership’s justification for this unprecedented action contorts a plain reading of their own rules. Their belief that a motion cannot be made on a resolution that has been held for further study, in our view, is simply wrong. It represents a hastily formulated post hoc justification for eviscerating legitimately cast committee votes.
Even if there is ambiguity in the rules, which we believe there is not, Common Cause believes that the committee leadership should have erred on not taking this unprecedented step to nullify the vote. The resolution should have been sent to the floor and House leadership should have attempted to recommit the bill to the Judiciary Committee. In other words, they should have erred on the side of democracy, not dictatorship.
The House of Representatives’ current rules are in this PDF. Rule 12(f) is the main subject of the dispute.
Ironically, House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Edie Ajello – the Providence Democrat who formally nullified Tuesday’s ethics vote – earned the highest score in the entire General Assembly on Common Cause’s legislative scorecard, a fact that Ajello touts on her own website.
Update: House spokesman Larry Berman has quickly fired back, telling WPRI.com in an email:
If Common Cause is concerned about open and transparent government, then how would they feel if a committee held a bill for further study at the beginning of a hearing and then reconsidered it for passage after all the witnesses and some of the committee members had gone home? In this case, 13 members voted to hold it for further study at the beginning of the meeting. After five of them had departed, the bill was reconsidered hours later.
Common Cause is taking the sentence in the rule out of context. You have to read the rule in its totality to understand the full meaning of the rule, along with the rule preceding it, and you also have to understand why the rule was established in the first place. There would be chaos in the committees if bills that were held for further study were continually subject to calls for reconsideration. The only bills that are allowed to be reconsidered on a motion from a member are those that have already been passed by the committee to go to the floor. The reference to “in the possession of the committee” refers to the two-week period or less that committees retain the bills before the committee-passed bills before they are posted for a floor vote.
Asked to release the results of the Judiciary Committee votes on the ethics bill, Berman said in an email:
While the vote technically no longer exists because it was voided, here are the eight people who voted in favor of H 5498: Chairwoman Ajello, Martin, Almeida, Blazejewski, Craven, Costa, O’Neill and Walsh. Absent were DeSimone, Lally, Lima, Marcello and Shekarchi.
However, Berman did not immediately release the results of the crucial vote that immediately preceded that one, which was a vote on Rep. O’Neill’s surprise motion to reconsider the bill. Neither vote has been posted on the Assembly’s website, and lawyers for House leadership argued they don’t have to be.
Common Cause’s John Marion, who attended Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing, said his recollection is that Ajello was the only committee member who voted against O’Neill’s motion to reconsider. But Marion cautioned that he has not reviewed the video of the hearing yet.
Update #2: Berman says O’Neill’s motion to reconsider was a voice vote, “so there is no record of that.”
Update #3: Common Cause asked a lawyer to take a look and he isn’t buying the legal rationale put forward by Speaker Fox’s lawyers and spokesman. Here’s how the lawyer interprets the rules around the ethics vote:
Rule 12(e) addresses the process of posting a hearing on a bill or resolution within 30 days and then talks about postponing hearings. It talks about “considering” the bill in committee. It then defines consideration as majority vote of the committee on any one of the five motions that follow in sub paragraphs (i) through (v).
Rule 12(f) then addresses what happens once a bill comes out of committee, saying that it must bring the report of the committee to the floor no later than two weeks after the committee vote on the bill. Then 12(f) says that the two-week reporting deadline does not apply to bills held for further study under Rule 12(e)(v). What that means is that the committee does not have to report the committee vote to hold a bill for further study within the two-week deadline. THAT IS ALL IT MEANS.
Rule 12(f) then goes on to say that a committee member voting in the majority may move consideration of ANY vote still in the possession of the committee. No deadline is set. The fact that the same committee meeting was going on the same day as posted removes any argument that it had to be re-posted.
Update #4: House spokesman Larry Berman responds to Common Cause’s lawyer:
Common Cause has completely misinterpreted this rule. Again, you cannot split the sentences of the rule out.
The point of Rule 12(f) is to set the procedure to govern a bill once the bill is reported out under 12(e) i-iv. It specifically excludes bills held for further study under 12(e)v. The point of Rule 12(f) is to give the committee the ability to, in essence, recall a bill through a vote for reconsideration before it passes to the floor. The point of that procedure is to allow the committee to consider important information on a bill that was learned about by the committee after the bill was passed by the committee, but before it gets to the floor. As an example, if it were believed the bill had no fiscal impact at the time of the committee vote to pass, but subsequently it came to light that the fiscal impact was millions of dollars, the committee could reconsider the bill before it gets to the floor. The two-week reporting requirement has NOTHING to do with saying that bills held for further study don’t need to be reported in two weeks.
• Related: House Dems nullify vote on ethics bill, arguing rules require it (March 13)