Dorso Column: Why It Works
Since I began writing a column for SAB I have become an off and on reader of the blog. On days I am not moving a boat or fixing one I enjoy seeing what is transpiring in the North Dakota legislature. I also enjoy the SAB reader’s reactions.
I am fully aware that many in North Dakota’s government probably think it is none of my business what is happening up there. This is especially true because of my former position as Majority Leader. Part of my purpose is to give the citizens some perspective on how the session works. The other is to remind citizens and legislators that North Dakota has a very unique constitution. I believe the original framers had the experience of watching how congress and states to our east operated. They could see the bad and the good and they tried to include what they believed were the best parts of all they saw in their new states founding papers.
Not all of how your legislature functions is found in the constitution. Many of the ways the legislative branch works is governed by the rules it adopts each session. Most of those rules are in response to the constitution, facilitating the efficient use of the 80 days allotted.
Many a new legislator finds some of what is contained in the rules arcane. As the newly elected serve their time they come to realize that most of the rules are there for very good reasons. As an example the House cannot amend a bill on the floor like the senate does. Quite simply with twice as many members the time it would take up makes it a useful rule. In my time the senate always took longer to work through their bill load before the crossover deadline even with fewer members and usually fewer bills.
One of the things I did was to change the way the house handled amendments. It used to be that every amendment had to be explained to the members and voted on separately. Few amendments to bills do not pass. Many are technical changes that few would argue with. What we did is start putting amendments on the consent calendar and voting on all of them with one motion. Before the motion to pass the amendments the Speaker would ask if anyone of the members wanted and amendment pulled from the consent calendar so it could be explained or debated. It was not just my intent to speed things along but to allow for more debate on the bills in their final form. I noticed the other day that the practice is still being followed. I don’t think it has a desultory effect on making law.
Another unwritten practice is that the Majority Leaders in both the House and Senate have an immense amount of power. This goes back decades as I don’t think a President Pro Tem in the Senate or a Speaker in the house has ever served more than two consecutive terms. The presiding officers are elected by the ruling majority caucus and then re-affirmed by the whole body. As such they are usually older members of the assembly who are familiar with the rules each body operates under and are expected to interpret the rules without regard to partisanship.
The reasoning behind the Majority Leaders powers are this. In some states the majority has been compromised when the partisan split is very close. Speakers who fear they may lose their power have been known to form alliances with the opposition to insure their election. This causes all kinds of back room deal making that our state avoids. In the case of the President Pro Tem, it has always nettled the N. D. Senate that the Lt. Governor presides, especially if they are of the opposition party. You wouldn’t want the Lt. Governor of the opposition party giving out committee assignments nor assigning bills to committees. Relieving the Lt. Governor of the duty to preside has been put to the voters many times. I to this day do not understand what the voters see in having the executive branch intrude on the workings of one house of the legislature.
When I read SAB and see comments about the legislature wasting time or legislators being referred to in derogatory terms it sets me back. I couldn’t tell a Democrat legislator his bill was inane so we dealt with it.
I also think the voters should realize one of the most important votes a legislator casts are when they elect leadership. If Republicans would have elected a majority to the U.S. Senate, Sen. Reid wouldn’t be calling the shots. Some may call liberal Republicans RINOS but to a legislative leader they are what allow the Republican majority to set the agenda.