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Don't like the rules? Just change the rules


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001

Once upon a time, the Legislature was run by Democrats. The final week became an orgy of tacking amendments onto important bills, the creation of "trains," a legislative term that describes a chain of often-unrelated issues that get connected in a single bill.

Legislators met into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes they were obviously drunk and a bit disorderly. Sometimes if was funny. Sometimes you had to laugh to keep from crying.

Trains are a poor way to make law. The biggest and best trains have sneaky little amendments that help out a particular business or interest group.

The mark of a good lobbyist was not how well he knew the issue or whether it was good public policy, but how clever he was at slipping a last-minute amendment onto a bill without being caught.

Amendments are added in the dark of night in the final hours when legislators are preoccupied with the budget and finishing a session on time.

When Republicans took over the Legislature in 1996, they promised to be different. They would stop the trains and establish new rules designed to make the process more orderly and easier to understand.

Lobbyists were caught off guard. Some were close to nervous breakdowns in the closing hours of the session because they were unable to get their little tax break or special privilege cemented into law.

The speaker at the time, Daniel Webster, banned lobbyists from his office during the final week of the session and refused to operate the House into the wee hours of the morning. Every session ended by 6 p.m.

It made many of us think Republicans were, in fact, different. They managed to improve a process that no one thought could be changed. Most observers actually understood which bills were passing and what was going on.

The trains mostly disappeared, yielding to bills that more often dealt with a single subject. We no longer passed all of the important bills after midnight on the final night of session.

The Republicans are still in charge, but more and more they are beginning to look like Democrats.

The Democrats used to "waive the rules" every time they needed to do something that was against the rules.

The House Republicans don't have enough votes to waive the rules -- so they just call a meeting and change the rules.

Last week the Democrats slowed the process by using a rule that requires the publication of a notice listing the bills that will be heard on any given day by 9 p.m. the night before. Republicans responded with a meeting of the Rules Committee and changed the rule Democrats were using.

Under the new rule, any bill could be heard at any time.

One of the hallmarks of Webster's speakership was a rule that limited the House to considering only bills that were in messages from the Senate on the final two days of a session.

That rule generally meant that only bills that had been heard in public committee meetings got passed.

The process wasn't perfect, but it was clearly in the public interest to let everyone know what was passing into law.

It was harder to complain about the result when an issue was debated in public and widely known before the final vote.

This week, House Speaker Tom Feeney's Rules Committee had another special meeting and changed the rules again.

Instead of taking up only bills that have been considered and reconsidered, the House can take up any bill, even Senate bills.

Feeney says he just wanted to keep things flexible.

Yeah. That's what we are afraid of -- flexible enough to do anything to anybody without anyone knowing it.

Republicans looking like Democrats. It ain't pretty.

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