Should the House consider all bills?

July 26, 2011

Last Wednesday, discussion resumed on the question of whether Oklahoma’s House leadership, specifically committee chairpersons, exercise too much power over which bills receive a hearing during the legislative session. As he did at the beginning of the 2011 session, state Rep. Charles Key (R-Oklahoma City) makes the argument that the democratic process is broken, the will of the people is being thwarted, and ideas with broad, popular support are prevented from seeing the light of day because the Speaker, committee chairpersons, and powerful special interests arbitrarily decide which bills will receive a hearing. Rep. Key believes that any House member who asks for a hearing on his or her bill should get one. And though his proposal is well-intentioned, it is unnecessary.

The fact is, the House’s internal checks and balances have not ceased to function, and both practical and theoretical considerations advise against Rep. Key’s proposal.

To begin with, the assumption that all ideas are of equal merit and should be given equal consideration is manifestly false. It goes without saying that a bill naming a new state vegetable is not as important as a measure that establishes spending limits for an executive-branch agency. The legislative process should remain a meritocracy of ideas and should not become a forum where mediocre proposals are imposed on the membership of the House.

Furthermore, significant time constraints exist because the Oklahoma Constitution restricts the amount of time the Legislature may meet in session. The Legislature is limited to approximately 64 days. Ideas of lesser merit should not occupy the limited time of the Legislature.

On the theoretical side, the idea that the Speaker personally or an oligarchy of House committee chairs could successfully resist the political desires of the majority belies the majoritarian nature of the House of Representatives. In point of fact, the House itself is a microcosm of the same checks and balances present within our overall system of government. The House elects the Speaker, who exercises executive authority within the House through management of the legislative process. The House legislates its rules of procedure, providing a check and balance against arbitrary actions by the Speaker and committee chairpersons. Finally, the House adjudicates procedural disputes through appeal of the ruling of the chair. As a matter of practicality, abuse of power does not easily arise within the legislative process.

Oftentimes legislators cannot get their bills heard because their ideas are not within the mainstream of opinion within the House of Representatives. It is not because the leadership is arbitrarily preventing consideration of their bills. Where majority support exists for a proposal, it will advance within the legislative process.

Rather than imposing upon legislators proposals they are not interested in pursuing, a better approach is to build support among fellow members. If a member is unable to obtain consideration of his or her bill, it is not because the legislative process itself is flawed. It is because the member’s peers are not interested in expending the time or political capital necessary to carry the idea through to the point of becoming law.