The debate over rules governing firearms in the House chamber and mandatory sexual harassment training for all representatives got most of the attention last week after the first day of voting by the newly elected House of Representatives, but there were other votes of some consequence.
Voting on the rules that will govern the legislative process, at least for the next two years, is always one of the first acts of a newly elected Legislature and can provide some insight into party discipline and the ability of party leaders to hold ranks.
And while Democrats maintained a united front on the high-profile issues, party leaders failed to get sufficient support for one change they were pushing.
The House Rules Committee, now dominated by Democrats, wanted to eliminate the option of sending a bill to “interim study,” which Majority Leader Douglas Ley of Jaffrey characterized as nothing more than a way to offer “death with dignity” to legislation at the end of the two-year session.
“Committees have multiple ways to study those issues they desire to study, and those deliberations can be and would be posted in the calendar,” Ley said. “Interim study is quite often used simply for the death-with-dignity option for many bills, and many of the studies that are conducted are pro forma at best … with no binding effect on subsequent legislative bodies.”
Republicans, led by Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, and Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, mounted a strong defense of the much-maligned interim study “kiss of death.”
“As a former chair for 12 years, I can say interim study recommendations are a necessary and useful part of the legislative process,” Packard said. “There needs to be a pathway for second-year legislation that has merit but needs more work and input than deadlines allow.”
Apparently enough Democrats were convinced, as they joined Republicans in a 196-190 vote to defeat the change and give interim study a new lease on life.
It was all reminiscent of opening day in January 2017, when an independent-minded House majority pushed back against Republican leadership and the Rules Committee, rejecting a proposal to eliminate the standing Committee on Children and Family Law and refusing to approve a dress code.
In the months that followed, the Republican caucus fractured on several key votes, most prominently the state budget, right to work and educational choice.
Early signs suggest the Democrats are better positioned to enforce party discipline as they take the House majority, but time will tell. The only thing predictable about the New Hampshire House is that it is usually unpredictable.
One rule change that was approved on a voice vote is designed to ease the perception that “the fix is in” on legislation by banning committee votes on bills immediately after the public hearing, unless the committee votes unanimously to do so or by prior permission of the Speaker.
It’s rare for committees to hold a public hearing on a bill and then vote immediately afterward. Lawmakers usually try to at least give the appearance of considering the written and verbal testimony. But it does happen.
One of the most egregious examples from the last session came when hundreds of people filed into Representatives Hall in January 2017 for more than four hours of testimony on a right-to-work bill that would prohibit collection of union dues from non-members.
Immediately after the hearing, the Senate Commerce Committee took less than an hour to endorse the bill in a 3-2 vote along party lines, leaving many who had come to testify to ask themselves, “Why bother?”
The House rule change has no bearing on how the Senate conducts business, but it’s something the Senate may want to consider as well.
Speaking of Senate rules, Senate President Donna Soucy made clear after the House vote on firearms that the Senate has no such ban in mind.
“The Senate has never had anything in its rules regarding carrying guns, and at this point there is nothing proposed before the Senate. We’re maintaining the status quo,” she told a group of reporters on Wednesday.
“If there were any other considerations, it would have to go before the Joint Facilities Committee, and there’s nothing there to discuss at this point.”
Republican Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, predicted that the Joint Facilities Committee, meeting on Tuesday, will vote to ban firearms in all parts of the State House complex, like the Legislative Office Building where most hearings are held. Such a vote would not include Senate chambers, however, where senators have exclusive authority.