They say it’s easier to kill a bill than pass one, and in past legislative sessions, sometimes just a handful of local denizens stood behind powerful committee chairs who gave the nay to proposals thousands of Idahoans lobbied to pass.
But this year’s election could shake up the Idaho Legislature’s power structure after a handful of committee chairs retired their seats last session and previously unopposed chairs now face opposition on Election Day.
“The way American legislatures are structured, it’s possible for a minority, if well placed, to thwart the will of the majority,” explained Gary Moncrief, professor of political science at Boise State University.
When political power comes to mind, people often think of elected officials who sit at the top of the political hierarchy—presidents, governors, speakers and pro-tempores. But a little further down the ranks sit legislative committee chairs—the gatekeepers of the legislative process that drive agendas and, in Idaho, sometimes assume power without election opposition or with the backing of just a handful of Idaho voters and a modest cache of campaign funds. Their yea or nay can halt legislation in its tracks and sometime kill the debate behind some of the most hard-fought proposals.
“In Idaho, the committee system is incredibly strong, more so than in other states. Committees in Idaho are very powerful, and committee chairs as head of those committees consequently are quite powerful,” Moncrief said.
In past legislative sessions, advocates who pushed for everything from civil rights protections to the legalization of medical marijuana walked away from the process without seeing their proposals heard in committee. Every session leaves more bills killed than passed and an unknown number go unprinted and unheard.
“The same thing is true in Congress. There was a period in the 1950s and '60s, when Congress, which was pretty much overwhelmingly in favor of civil rights legislation, could never get a bill out of the committees because the committees were dominated by senators or House members from Southern states and, of course, they weren’t in favor of a civil rights bill at all,” Moncrief said.
At the same time, rural committee chairs have yanked legislation slated to win approval from lawmakers despite vocal opposition from voters. Last year’s controversial ultrasound legislation that mandated pre-abortion ultrasounds drew national debate and heated local opposition as it sailed through the Senate State Affairs Committee and won a majority vote in the Senate. After the bill’s sponsor, Boise Republican Sen. Chuck Winder, spilled a few poorly chosen words that insulted women, the nation joined Idaho voters in a vocal rally against what looked like a sure passage in the House. What opponents called a “war against women” went into ceasefire when House Senate Affairs Chairman Thomas Loertscher, a Republican from Iona, yanked the bill, citing a lack of support for the measure.
“Having a committee system, in my mind, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it depends upon the nature of [the party] caucus,” Moncrief said. “There is a tension between a committee system and a party caucus. So if you have a majority party that has strong control, they can either let the committee chairs be fairly independent and do their own thing because supposedly they developed expertise in that policy area or the caucus can kind of force the committees to operate at the will of the caucus.
“One of the consequences is depending upon the relationship between the caucus and that committee chair; it’s possible for a minority to thwart the will of the majority—either the majority in their own caucus or the majority in the legislature,” Moncrief said.
Four former Senate chairs and six former House chairs are not seeking re-election this session, opening their seats up for a power grab. Last election, half of the representatives and 40 percent of the senators who assumed chair positions ran unopposed, but this year, only three current chairs in the House and Senate are running in uncontested races. The majority of last session’s chairs hailed from small, rural districts, and some won their elections with as few as 7,000 votes and $400 in campaign funds.