How the committee process “works”
Sometimes my memory is a little slow. But most of the time, after a bit of jostling around, it kicks out some of the most useful information that’s been tucked deep in those cerebral folds.
Last Thursday evening, toward the end of a panel discussion on transparency in Kansas government, Senate President Susan Wagle argued that the committee process in the Kansas Legislature works well, that there’s no effort to squash good ideas.
“I don’t try to squelch things…We’re very open,” she said. “The good bills bubble to the top. We’re not coordinating to kill bills, we’re not coordinating to be secret. We’re trying to make the best ideas become public and become law. My leadership team and I don’t suppress initiatives and we don’t suppress legislation.”
I was part of the panel, and didn’t see things quite the same way.
“I have some real questions about if what I just heard is actually true. There are a number of people that will talk about how bills cannot get out of committee. There are committee chairs that have their own bills that they’re going to push through….Some of these good ideas don’t bubble to the surface because they have a block put on them.”
When Democrats in the House move to amend a bill, there’s a common plea from some Republicans – who collectively control both the House and Senate from top to bottom – that we should “respect the committee process.” These amendments, they say, should run through committee, where they can be vetted and emerge as the best possible bill before the entire House. And I would agree if access to that process was fully in place. But it isn’t, and everyone in the Capitol knows it.
In theory, a bill worked in committee is altered and massaged until it is an improved piece of legislation. A small, but informed and passionate body, can, and often does, turn a rough idea into a very good bill. I’ve seen this work, and it is a beautiful blend of compromise and concern – and truly can produce a great product.
The problem isn’t with the committee process; the problem is the chairperson of a committee, under the supervision of the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate, has complete authority over which bills see the light of day, which bills get hearings and which bills get worked for a vote.
Saturday morning, my brain rattled loose a few examples.
Going on for six years now, Rep. Steve Becker has been trying to get his bill on the abolition of the death penalty out of committee. House Bill 2167 would abolish the death penalty and create the crime of aggravated murder with no chance of parole. Rep. Becker has laid out some solid, logical reasons for this legislation – including evidence that innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, that Kansas hasn’t executed a single person on death row since reinstating the death penalty, and that a lifetime prison sentence is less costly to the state than the myriad appeals granted in a death penalty case.
For this purpose, though, I’m not interested in debating the merits or drawbacks of Rep. Becker’s legislation. The point at hand is that this is an idea worth the conversation, worth the debate – and for nearly six years it has withered under a chair. It had a hearing last year in the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice committee, with a long list of supporters and no detractors. It has yet to come up for a vote before a committee, and just this week we learned that this bill will not be worked or voted on in committee this legislative session.
So the thought that the best ideas bubble to the surface is demonstrably in question.
But that wasn’t the only example I remembered.
Last year, when Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook introduced an amendment on Medicaid expansion, Wagle stripped Pilcher-Cook of her Chair position on the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.
According to a story in the Kansas City Star, “Wagle removed Pilcher-Cook from the chairmanship because her actions “showed complete disrespect for the body and its rules.”
Going back just another year further, House Speaker Ray Merrick removed three members from the House Health and Human Services Committee for their support of Medicaid expansion.
From a November 2015 Kansas Health Institute story:
“House Speaker Ray Merrick, a conservative Republican from Stilwell, has removed Rep. Susan Concannon of Beloit, Rep. Barbara Bollier of Mission Hills and Rep. Don Hill of Emporia from the panel and given them new assignments. All three are moderate Republicans.”
All three had extensive knowledge of health care. Concannon sat on a medical foundation board, Bollier is a retired doctor, and Hill, a pharmacist. Minority leader Rep. Jim Ward called the move a “desperate attempt to try and stop a vote on Medicaid expansion.”
Merrick left little doubt about that in his response to the committee shake up.
“Kansans oppose expanding Obamacare, a program that has busted budget after budget in states that have expanded it,” Merrick said. “I will continue to fight to protect Kansans from the disastrous effects of Obamacare.”
It turns out, though, that Kansans really do want Medicaid expansion. Polls show overwhelming support for it, and the 2016 legislature overwhelmingly approved expansion, and fell just a few votes short of overriding then Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto. And the only reason it came up for a vote was through the use of “gut and go,” which replaces the contents of a bill with the contents of another bill. In this case it was used to bring a discussion on Medicaid expansion – but the procedural move wouldn’t be necessary at all if the committee process worked as designed.
I’d say that qualifies Medicaid expansion as one of those good ideas that we can all expect to bubble to the surface this year.
If we’re going to talk about process, we have to talk honestly about it. And the truth as I see it is this: The Speaker of the House and the Senate President have total control over who sits on what committees – and determines whether those selected remain in their seats. We have concrete examples that show if a chair isn’t compliant, he or she can be slapped down and punished. That’s the system we have – and to say that we have this free flowing method in place where all thoughts are considered and the best ideas organically emerge and become policy, simply isn’t borne out by the evidence.