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The seat of power

 When the Speaker speaks, people listen. Here's why
By PHILIP EIL  |  April 3, 2014

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VIEW FROM THE GALLERY The House of Representatives hall. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

On Friday, March 21, agents from the FBI, IRS, and Rhode Island State Police entered both House Speaker Gordon Fox’s office at the State House and his home on Providence’s East Side. We still don’t know exactly why they executed the raid or what was in the boxes they toted out hours later. But we do know that the following evening, Fox issued a statement announcing his resignation as Speaker, citing “the respect I have for all members of the House of Representatives.

“The process of governing must continue and the transition of leadership must be conducted in an orderly manner,” he added.

By that time, the transition was well underway. Certain reps had assembled to strategize at the Providence Marriott on Orms Street the night before, practically before the feds’ trucks had chugged away with their haul of evidence. And over the course of the weekend, thanks to Rhody’s dogged political press corps, we learned of other meetings at restaurants on Federal Hill (one camp at the Old Canteen, another at Venda Ravioli), in a firefighters hall in Johnston, and at Woonsocket City Hall.

But our knowledge of the proceedings was limited. The sight of reporters sitting in cars or staked out on sidewalks, waiting to see who would walk in or out of a venue and whether they would say anything substantive, was a reminder that the House Speaker isn’t voted in by the general population of Rhode Island. He — it’s never been a “she” — is voted in by “an electorate of 75 people,” in the words of former Brown University political science professor and current director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, Darrell West.

If this doesn’t make you squirm, perhaps the frequent reminders of the office’s significance will do the trick. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ian Donnis tweeted that the House Speaker is “RI’s most powerful public official.” The Providence Journal described it as “arguably the most powerful position in Rhode Island government.” A team of writers at WPRI.com wrote that the Speaker “is often called the most powerful politician in Rhode Island.”

But what does that oft-repeated “most powerful” phrase mean, exactly? And, while we’re at it, what is political power?

In an effort to answer these questions, we’ve been calling and emailing and meeting with the smartest, most seasoned experts we could find: an array of professors, pollsters, politicians, journalists, lobbyists, non-profit advocates, and close political observers. But, before we share what we’ve learned, consider a couple disclaimers.

First, as the executive director of Common Cause RI (a “nonpartisan organization whose mission is to ensure open, ethical, accountable, and effective government processes”) John Marion warned us before our interview, this conversation “could get pretty wonky pretty fast.” Any analysis of political power runs the risk of becoming dense, dry, and complicated. But it isn’t hyperbole to say that the future of Rhode Island depends on it. So, we’re not turning this school bus around.

Secondly, here’s another disclaimer from Providence College political science professor Tony Affigne, whom we also interviewed. “The power of the Speaker is usually not something outsiders witness directly,” he says. “You will sometimes see it when a bill is expected to pass or a bill is expected to reach the floor and it doesn’t. And people ask, ‘What happened to it?’ And then you may find out later that the Speaker made some phone calls.” But it’s not particularly common for a Speaker to simply unilaterally snatch a bill from the queue, he says.

More often, “the power of the Speaker is exercised in the Speaker’s office behind closed doors when committee chairs or other members come in and meet with the Speaker and the Speaker tells them he’s not going to support a particular bill or he’ll only support it if is has particular amendments,” he says. While members of the legislature can perhaps more easily spot the guiding hand of the Speaker in the legislative process, for the rest of us, Affigne says, “It’s like watching the ripples in a pond, but you never see the stone.”

With that said, let’s see if we can make some sense of recent events in Rogue’s Island. As you’ll see, we’ve organized our findings into thematic categories.

THE SCHEDULE

Professor Affigne points out that the House Speaker is only mentioned three times in the Rhode Island Constitution. “One time is to specify that the Speaker and the Senate President will get paid twice what the other members of their legislative houses get paid,” he says. “The second place is where the Speaker is designated to be the third in the line of succession, after the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. And the third place is where the Constitution provides for an election of the Speaker by all members of the House, irrespective of party.”

The other powers of the Speaker are vested in him, therefore, via the rules of the House, which are voted on shortly after a new of reps is sworn in every two years. On the second page of those rules (“2013 — H 5293 SUBSTITUTE A. . . HOUSE RESOLUTION ADOPTING RULES OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES FOR THE YEARS 2013–2014.”), under the heading “Rules Pertaining to the Order of Business,” we find the seemingly innocuous sentence: “The Speaker, or the Speaker’s designee, shall prepare the floor calendar for each legislative day.”

This is a big deal.

There were 1293 bills introduced during the 2013 legislative session and only 368 made it to the floor for a vote. Once they did, every single one of those bills passed. In other words, most bills — nearly three-quarters, in 2013 — never make it to a vote. The ones that do, don’t get there by accident.

 Darrell West points to a high profile example: 2013’s passage of same-sex marriage. “In earlier years, activists had wanted to move that bill and [Gordon] Fox basically was not at the point where he wanted to do that, so nothing happened,” West says. “Then when he moved and basically was open to that bill going up for a vote, then the vote took place and the bill passed.”

Another glimpse of the Speaker’s scheduling power comes from the brief, quasi-public campaign that took place in the days after Fox’s resignation. In one camp was Cranston Representative Nicholas A. Mattiello, the Democrat who would ultimately win the race with 61 votes when the House reconvened on Tuesday, March 25. But, over the weekend, Mattiello’s challenger, Representative Michael Marcello (D-Scituate, Cranston) claimed to have enough votes to become Speaker.

Marcello presented himself as a reformer and made his case by telling local news outlets that, if elected, he would bring bills to the House floor within 30 days on three long-idling issues: payday lending reform, increasing the oversight powers of the State Ethics Commission, and eliminating the so-called “master lever” allowing voters to vote quickly along a party line when inside the election booth.

Why would a Speaker candidate focus on scheduling? Because laws can only pass if they make it to the floor. And the Speaker controls that process.

THE COMMITTEE SYSTEM

The subject of scheduling — or “controlling the flow of legislation,” as it’s often called — is so critical to understanding the Speaker’s power, it’s worth taking a look from another angle.

There are 11 standing committees in the House of Representatives. They cover corporations; environment and natural resources; finance; health, education and welfare; judiciary; labor; municipal government; rules; oversight; small business; and veterans’ affairs. The Speaker has absolute power over who sits on these committees and who chairs them. He simply appoints and removes people as he sees fit. (We have seen this in the way in Speaker Mattiello has swapped out leadership on key committees — finance, judiciary, oversight, labor — in the days after assuming his new post. His appointment of North Kingston/Exeter Republican Representative Doreen Costa, who has an “A” NRA rating, to vice-chair of the judiciary committee was particularly eyebrow-raising.)

Why do committees matter? Again, it’s about the way bills travel to the House floor. House Minority Leader Brian Newberry (R-North Smithfield, Burrillville), explains.

“The Speaker appoints committee chairs. The Speaker appoints committee members,” he says. “And what the Speaker does in these situations. . . is that, [on] every committee, [he] makes sure that the majority of the committee are people loyal to the Speaker. That way, he can control the flow of legislation through the committees.”

It’s been a longstanding state house practice that every bill discussed in committee is “held for further study” after it’s first heard, Newberry says. Since a bill will only see the light of day if the Speaker says so, a committee chair’s (modest) power and influence lies in their ability to persuade the Speaker and his staff about a bill’s merits during closed-door meetings. If a bill is released back out to the committee after ’study,’ “that’s the signal they’re supposed to pass,” Newberry says. From there, it proceeds to the Floor where, thanks to a Democratic supermajority, it passes easily. (The House’s lopsided party distribution — 69 Democrats and six Republicans — is yet another source of the Speaker’s power.)

The bottom line is this, Newberry says. “For the last four years, Gordon Fox has been able to decide what bills pass or don’t pass the Rhode Island House of Representatives. . . Now that he’s out of the picture, the next Speaker will have that same power. And he may wield it very differently.”

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