Republican legislative leaders want to open the now-secret Rules Committees in the House and Senate, but minority Democrats - who do have some power on the secret committees - are worried they'll lose that influence in proposed changes.
Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, has had a bill drafted that passes "sifting" powers from Rules, through his office and the House speaker's, to individual committees. And that bothers some Democrats."I want the Rules committees open," says Beattie. "I want our (legislative) staff to recommend where each bill goes, based on its content, and then I want these committees, with their chairmen, to do their jobs" of hearing, passing or defeating all bills.
Currently, the Rules committees - which are specifically exempted from the Open Meetings Law - hold and kill bills each session. Only Rules members know why, and they are prohibited from talking about what goes on in the powerful committees under threat of being kicked off.
Because of the early retirement of former Senate President Arnold Christensen, Beattie is already Senate president and probably will be for at least two years. House members won't pick a new speaker until after the Nov. 8 election. As of now, two Republicans seek to succeed Speaker Rob Bishop, who is leaving at year's end - Majority Leader Marty Stephens and Majority Assistant Whip Mel Brown.
Stephens said he hasn't yet seen Beattie's proposal and can't comment on it. "But my preference is that we open Rules and somehow keep the bipartisan nature of the (now-secret) committee," said Stephens, thus allowing Democrats some specific say on where bills are sent, how they are prioritized, etc.
Rep. Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, is a member of House minority leadership and chairman of the state Democratic Party. Jones, likewise, hasn't seen Beattie's proposal but adds that he's worried about wholesale changes in Rules.
"We want an open Rules Committee, open party caucuses, in total an open process," said Jones. Democrats worry that Beattie's process change could mean that either the speaker or president could "hold" bills - never assign them to a standing committee for a hearing or - and this is more likely - the committee chairmen could hold the bills and never let them have a hearing.
Beattie finds the Democrats' concerns odd - they want an open Rules but they still want the quiet power that a secret Rules allows.
"What they (the Democrats) are worried about could happen right now," responds Beattie. The president and speaker read in reports from the secret Rules Committees, and while it doesn't happen often, they can change the Rules Committees reports - sending bills to "hostile" committees or not sending them anywhere. Likewise, committee chairmen set their committees' agendas. And chairmen can refuse to place a bill for a hearing.
At anytime, either on the floor of the whole chamber or in a committee, a member - Republican or Democrat - can move to "lift" a bill, which places it at the top of the agenda for consideration, says Beattie. If the bill has already been tabled, it takes a two-thirds vote to lift it. If the bill is just awaiting action, it takes a majority vote. Democrats don't have a majority on any committee or in the House or Senate as a whole. But Republicans don't have two-thirds majorities on any committee or in either house.
"That is one reason this election (in November) is so critical to us," says Jones. "If we lose even one seat in the House, we fall below two-thirds." Two seats lost in the Senate drops Democrats below two-thirds there. "We fall below two-thirds, and the Republicans can change any rule (which takes a two-thirds vote), can push anything through as long as their members stay in line. It will be complete one-party rule in Utah," he said.