New Rules For Senate and Assembly

With Monday’s Inauguration a new legislative session is underway.  While there are plenty of big debates coming up, including a mining bill, the budget and battles over taxes, the first item of business will be about how those debates take place.

Republican leaders in control of the Senate and Assembly say they plan to make some rule changes that will impact access, security and debate.  Each chamber gets to make their own rules, and they can change them at will.  But the rules carry forward, and majority parties have been cautious about making major changes.

Few legislators were happy with how things worked in the last session.  Republicans were furious with interruptions from protesters and accused the Democrats of urging them on.  Republicans were also angry with what they felt were stalling tactics by the minority party, mainly hundreds of proposed amendments to bills that everyone knew had no chance of passing.

On the other hand, Democrats accused Republicans of cutting off debate and operating with a heavy hand by giving them access to complex, controversial legislation just a few hours before they expected them to vote on the bills.  Often, Democrats in the Assembly would stay in private caucus for hours while they learned what was in the bills and drafted amendments.

Newly elected Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) announced he has proposed a number of rule changes that will impact debate but would not give details, except to say he wanted to avoid the number of overnight debates that would end with groggy lawmakers voting at 3 or 4 in the morning.

The most famous example came in 2011 when Democrat debated the bill that became Act 10 for 90 hours straight.  That debate only ended when Republicans cut off debate without warning and forced a vote so quickly some of their own members didn’t get a chance to vote.  But that wasn’t the only overnighter.

In my decade covering the Capitol the standard procedure is for the Assembly to convene at 11am, recite the pledge of allegiance, have a prayer, and then stand adjourned while both parties go into private caucus to discuss the bills on the agenda.  Typically, the Assembly does not come back to the floor until late afternoon, and on quick days they are done by early evening.  Longer days last into the primetime hours, and contentious days become contentious mornings with debate stretching past bar time.  The sessions only end when the minority party’s last amendment has been tabled by the majority party and everyone has had a chance to speak.

With 99 members, it is understandable the Assembly would have long debates, but typically the only members of the majority that speak are the author of the bill and leadership.  A typical debate is hours of the minority party speaking while the majority members sit in silence with bored expressions.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) says he is OK with about 8 of the 12 rule changes proposed by Speaker Vos.  But he has concerns about the other 4 limiting the debate for the minority.

I spoke with a high ranking Republican Monday about the rule changes and he said they understand they “might not be in the majority forever,” and they considered whether they could live under these rules if they were in the minority.  He said they could and will fight to pass all the changes.

In the Senate, the concern is not about overnight debates.  Both parties caucus and discuss the bills before they come of the floor at 11am, so debate begins immediately and they are usually finished with their business by mid-afternoon.  There were moments last session where Republicans limited debate to a certain time period before forcing a vote, but otherwise there is no time limit.  With only 33 members the process does go faster.

However, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) says they are looking at rules that would change security in the south wing of the Capitol.  While both chambers were at times interrupted by a small group of protesters who shouted from the balconies, the Senate protests were more routine.  Sen. Fitzgerald also had concerns about protesters entering the offices of Senators and harassing staff.

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