On abiding by the rules of ‘the Ledge’ or not

Rare is the interest group willing to concede ground in the interest of benefiting the public as a whole.

Gary Hooser

The Hooser Analysis
with Gary Hooser

Approximately 3,500 bills will be submitted during the upcoming 2011 legislative session that begins on Wednesday, January 19. Upon sine die, in early May, approximately 200 of those bills will have passed successfully through the Legislature.

Many of these measures are even now being fine tuned and vetted by the interest groups whom they will benefit, and by individual legislators who will attempt to shepherd them through the complex process. 

The Players

Whether it is the Farm Bureau, Sierra Club, Chamber of Commerce, Building Industry Association, or labor unions (both public and private), almost every special interest imaginable is organized and represented at the Legislature. Hundreds of special interests, each operating from within their own silo, will be in the building and at the table.

By default, those groups not at the table, and thus not in the game, will always lose. 

Interest groups, their lobbyists, and the legislators who champion their issues play both offense and defense.  They will attempt to pass those measures that enhance their interests, and kill those that might detract, weaken, or cost them money. For businesses, large land owners, the natural environment, and the community as a whole, the stakes can be very high.

The Governor, the House Speaker, the Senate President and 74 other individual legislators will each have their own priorities. There will be “subject matter priorities” (energy, agriculture, business, etc.), as well as “district-specific priorities” (schools, roads, etc.). Each department will also have priority bills they will be pushing, as will the University of Hawaii and the Department of Education. 

At the end of the day, this is what it comes down to—priorities. If an interest group’s priority is not on one or more legislators’ priority lists, then the likelihood of successful passage is slim to none.

The Process

Once a bill is introduced, official legislative vetting begins. A bill may or may not be scheduled for a committee hearing, depending largely on whether or not it has made the committee chair’s priority list (or the list of a supportive colleague or legislative leader). Because of time constraints, it is impossible for committee chair’s to hold hearings on every measure. Consequently, prioritization is required.

The scheduling of a bill’s initial committee hearing is the first indicator that a measure may have a chance for success. If a committee hearing is held, the battle lines between interest groups will then be made clear and public. A tentative compromise between competing interests may already have been negotiated, prior to the first public testimony.

With few exceptions, every measure will have winners and losers. Inevitably, someone’s ox is gored. 

Increased funding for one group’s priority almost always means decreased funding for someone else’s. Consumer and environmental protection matters are often seen as anti-business. Protecting stream flow can conversely limit water for agriculture and development. Increased benefits for workers may mean increased costs to businesses.

Rare is the interest group willing to concede ground in the interest of benefiting the public as a whole. Few things at the Legislature are ever given up without a demand for something in return. If there is leverage, there is a price. The stronger the leverage, the higher the price.

The Rules

There are rules, timelines, and legislative policies that govern every step of the “bill to law” process. It behooves the serious advocate to study that process and learn the rules of lawmaking. The vast majority of legislation that moves successfully through the approval process does so according to these established rules, timelines, and policies.

The Legislature makes the rules and the Legislature can change them any time it likes.

However, for some legislation (usually the uber-controversial or those special interest matters seeking to fly under the radar or jam past the normal checks and balances), established rules, timelines, and legislative policies simply don’t matter. You see, the Legislature makes the rules and the Legislature can change them any time it likes.

In some cases, legislators will simply ignore the rules in pursuit of passing their particular priority initiative. Unless challenged by a colleague, legislative leadership, or determined members of the public, the process is open to manipulation and abuse.

The Bottom Line

The process is driven by the unenlightened self-interest of hundreds of participants, each operating from within their own perspective, and is governed by rules that are subject to change.

Fortunately, the relative ease of public access to information, combined with the multiple reviews and approvals required by the House, Senate, and Governor, provide the checks and ensures the balances that are crucial to representative democracy.

Gary Hooser is the former State Senate Majority Leader and has represented Kauai and Niihau since 2002. Hooser recently ran for the office of Lieutenant Governor in Hawaii’s 2010 Democratic Party primary election.

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