BOBBY HARRISON: Legislative rules are valued and perpetuated by both parties

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The legislative process is all about knowing and using the rules.
For instance, if a committee chair kills a key piece of legislation, the members have other options to get that proposal before the full chamber for a vote. Those options are seldom used, but they are available.
And if a member believes the presiding officer made the wrong ruling on a parliamentary question, he or she can overturn that ruling by a majority vote of the chamber. That option is used even less.
Former House Speaker Tim Ford, then a Baldywn Democrat, took great pride in the fact that the membership never challenged one of his rulings. But Ford presided before the advent of partisan politics. In the more partisan environment, it is still not an everyday occurrence where the presiding officer’s ruling is challenged, but it happens more often.
It seems in the legislative process that it is fair to use the rules – all the rules – to try to gain a political advantage.
Some have complained in recent years about the United States Senate where any member has the right to literally grind the process to a halt through the filibuster process. It takes 60 votes – not a simple majority of 51 – to pass most provisions in the U.S. Senate because of the filibuster rule.
In the Mississippi Legislature there is no mechanism that can completely halt the process like the filibuster and other mechanisms have the potential of doing in the U.S. Senate.
But legislators in Mississippi can significantly slow the process through Section 59 of the state Constitution. That provision states “every bill shall be read in full immediately before the vote on its final passage upon the demand of any member.”
Last week, a group of Democrats, upset with the Republican majority in the House, had each bill read for the better part of two days. It kept the House in session until well past midnight one night.
Normally, the practice of requiring bills to be read does not go on that long. A member most often will request one or two bills be read as a symbol of protest. It is unusual for members to require bills to be read over a prolonged period of time like last week. But last week’s bill reading was far from the longest period for such a symbolic protest.
In the 1980s, African-American members had bills read for weeks because the majority would not pass legislation establishing a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
During the tenure of former Rep Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, as speaker, when moans came up as a member requested a bill be read, he would always say, “the gentleman has a right” under the state Constitution.
When the Constitution was enacted in 1890, the state’s illiteracy rate was much higher so there could have been a legitimate reason – other than as a parliamentary maneuver – to have bills read.
Plus, at the time, technology was not so readily available. Today, it is simple to get a copy of a bill on the Internet or a hard copy. Entire forests must be destroyed each year the Mississippi Legislature is in session to print copies of legislation.
When the constitution was adopted, presumably, in most instances, there was a bill – not literally unlimited copies of the bill as there are now.
This session a proposal was introduced to change the constitution to say that by a majority vote the membership could stop a member from having bills read. But that proposal was not voted out of the Constitution Committee.
In 1990, the Legislature proposed and voters approved changes to the section of the constitution that allows a member to have a bill read. But the Legislature opted at the time not to try to remove the specific provision allowing any member to require a bill to be read before final passage.
The point is even though the provision has at times dramatically slowed the process and often has caused great consternation, members have rejected any effort to change or remove the constitutional language allowing any member to require a bill to be read.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.