Within minutes of the legislative body taking the oath of office, Senate leadership pushed through a number of procedural reforms that were at times contentious and other times universally applauded. On the one hand, many concessions were made to the minority party as a gesture of good will. The Republican administration harped on the conditions they were subjected to during their many years out of power and indicated that changes would be made to ensure that they did not treat the Democrats similarly. On the other hand, Republicans sought to consolidate power within the senate vis-à-vis the Democrat Lieutenant Governor and President of the Senate, Walter Dalton. Reforms included subtle measures to provide a means for protecting the majority’s agenda should the Lt. Gov. prove to be a stumbling block to their efforts.
The Top 5 Rule Changes are as follows:
- Laptops Allowed in Senate: New rules brought the senate “to the 21st century” as one senator put it, by allowing the use of laptops and other silent electronic devices. Under the 18 year reign of Marc Basnight little tolerance was given to technology on the Senate floor, making the chamber appear rather antiquated as well as reliant on large quantities of paper. With Sen. Berger as the new Senate President Pro Tempore, it seems the door will be opened to technological advances that could assist in the legislative process. This reform was met with widespread support across the aisle.
- ‘Parliamentarian’ Position Added: In anticipation of possible clashes with the Lt. Governor, Republicans added the position of the ‘Parliamentarian’ to provide a means of appealing and overriding Dalton’s ruling. The Lt. Governor, as President of the Senate, has the authority to answer questions as to whether the Senate’s rules are being followed appropriately when a ‘point of order’ (essentially a request to determine whether protocol is being followed) is called by another senator. Ruling on a point of order provides the Lt. Governor with the ability to stall or stop legislation depending on his ruling. By adding the position of the parliamentarian, the Senate has an avenue of appeal to address a ruling they disagree with.
- Leadership Gets Speaking Priority: Republicans tied up an additional lose end by addressing the Lt. Governor’s ability to decide who to recognize when two or more Senators rise to speak simultaneously. Whereas previously Lt.Gov. Dalton would have complete discretion in which speaker to recognize, new rule changes curtailed that latitude with the caveat that Dalton would need to give preference to the President Pro Tempore, the Deputy President Pro Tempore, the Rules Committee Chair, or the Parliamentarian.
- Pair Voting Eliminated: Another interesting development in the Senate rules was the elimination of “pair” voting. A pair vote occurs when a senator knows he will be absent for a particular vote. He then “pairs” with another senator he knows will be absent who would vote the opposite way. This is done to show that the respective senator’s absence would not change the outcome of the vote. Sen. Doug Berger (D – Franklin) lamented losing paired voting, recalling once having paired during a family emergency. However, concerns that pairing allows senators to skip out on tough votes prompted the Senate leadership to make them a thing of the past.
- Seniority-based Seat Selection Optional: The final key Senate rules change occurred by substituting a single word from “shall” to “may,” resulting in much greater repercussions than changing one single word would suggest. The rule previously directed the President Pro Tempore, when assigning committee seats in the chamber, to give preferential treatment to members based on their length of service. Under the new version, however, the President Pro Tempore “may,” select committee seats according to seniority, and thus is not obligated to,. Someone more qualified for a particular seat may gain the seat versus someone who has simply been around longer. This is a valuable reform as it allows for a more merit-based selection of committee seats rather than allocating them based on seniority.