This time of year there seems to be much hand wringing about the tension between the House and Senate. Every year it seems that some people are surprised by this tension. They shouldn’t be – it was designed to occur.
The separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches in the national and state constitutions was intended to create a checks and balance system. These checks and balances create a natural tension between the branches. This tension isn’t necessarily negative but obviously can become so. Many would agree that the checks and balances – particularly on the national level – aren’t functioning very well.
The end of the state legislative session is drawing near and we are reading about the House doing this and the Senate doing that which comes across as petty bickering. Believe me – there are times when that is the case but by and large these actions are part of the natural tension built into the system.
The House is designed to be somewhat reactionary – more capable of rapid response than the Senate and more responsive to the citizens at large. The Senate is designed to be more deliberative and to slow the process down to ensure adequate discussion and deliberation takes place. Both sides sometimes abuse this set up but overall it works as intended.
Several issues come up every year that sounds like simple squabbles but have a deeper meaning. The Right to Work (RTW) issue is a high priority for many and is a good example of the natural tension that exists between the House and the Senate.
Sen Rob Mayer announced RTW as one of his top priorities for this legislative session when he was selected as President Pro Tem. The Senate has briefly discussed RTW (Senate Bill 1) but has not spent any additional time on it since it was first brought up. The measure faces a filibuster by some Republicans and Democrats. However – if you are one of the eight Democrats in the Senate why wouldn’t you be thinking “if you have Republicans carrying the water why waste a lot of our time standing up?” Be assured they will but…
When the Senate did not move RTW very fast -the attention moved to the House. House Speaker Steve Tilley told the press that RTW was not a priority for the House. That was interpreted to be that Tilley was not supportive of RTW. What the message Tilley was sending to the Senate was the House would not be voting on a measure that the Senate said was their number one priority if the Senate couldn’t pass it. My prediction is that if the Senate passes RTW – the House passes it also although it is getting very late in the session for that to happen. This is a good example of the natural tension between the two bodies.
I suspect that following passage of the budget the Senate will take RTW up and perhaps even move the previous question (PQ) after some period of time if they can get 18 senators to sign one – technically three. The PQ is a parliamentary procedure that ends debate on a bill. Unlike the House which regularly uses the PQ – it technically takes three PQ motions to be signed as there are three motions that are necessary to be made to pass a bill and each motion is subject to debate. In the recent past when the PQ has been used – the Senate sees a filibuster on everything that follows. I think this is an abuse of privilege but it happens.
Natural tensions exist and flare every year. Theses tensions actually can be helpful in ensuring that bills that need more work get it. From time to time it also means bills that should be passed aren’t. We will know the final outcome at 6pm on May 13, 2011 – the constitutional time of adjournment of the First Legislative Session of the 96th General Assembly.