Prior to holding office I had heard the commonly used Action quote: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I didn’t fully appreciate this wisdom until I became a member of the State House of Representatives and gained a front row seat to the powerful effects of absolute power on a human being, specifically the six powerful Speakers of the House.
Many taxpayers believe the Legislature operates as described in American Government class where they are told that a bill becomes law after first being approved in a committee, then by votes in the House and Senate, and finally upon the approval of the Governor.
Imagine the surprise of a newly-elected Representative when he discovers that the Legislature is a very different environment than described above.
He can sponsor a bill, convince the chairman of a committee to give his bill a hearing (not always an easy task), present the bill before a committee, and successfully convince a majority of the committee to vote for passage.
Because he is new, the Representative can be forgiven for making the assumption that his bill will now go to the entire House for a vote.
After all, a legislative committee has approved the bill, so naturally the bill will proceed to the next step, a vote of the House, right?
Actually, this isn’t at all how it works.
The new Representative may learn the hard way that one very powerful individual has unilateral and complete authority over his bill; there is absolutely no requirement for the Speaker of the House or his appointee to schedule the bill for a vote on the floor of the House.
He can kill the bill for any reason, or no reason at all, and without his consent, a bill cannot live.
The Speaker has absolute power over all House bills, or he did, with the sole exception of the 2013 legislative year.
As the 2013 legislative session approached, Speaker of the House TW Shannon commissioned a committee to start the process of dissolving absolute power from the Speaker to the members of the Legislature.
The committee acted on Shannon’s idea and created a House calendar committee with the responsibility of determining which bills were scheduled for a vote of the House.
The committee contained House members from both political parties and held public meetings where members cast public votes on the slate of bills to go before the House.
For that one year, the final decision to hear or not hear a bill was no longer made behind closed doors, nor was it made by one man.
And, the committee approval process afforded the public with a few more hours of time to see and come to terms with the specifics of each proposal.
This proposal wasn’t uniformly popular. It didn’t take long for the defenders of the status quo to reassert their authority and get rid of the new transparency.
The reversal of this reform marked the beginning of a four-year “dark age” in which the adoption of new legislative transparency mostly came to a halt. It also created an “anti-transparency” culture in the House that exists to this day.
But as I look back at my time of legislative service, that one year of transparency and openness was a historic one that I am honored to have participated in.
Legislators would be well advised to return to the course of transparency and reform and seek out new opportunities to dissolve the absolute power of the Speaker into open and transparent processes.
And the members of the public are well justified in un-electing those who refuse to do so.