Hawaii’s House Speaker Has Way, Way Too Much Power - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Gary Hooser

Gary Hooser is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative, a former Hawaii state senator (2002-2010) and Senate majority leader (2006-2010), and a former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.

But a few straightforward rule changes would vastly improve transparency and thus accountability.

Speaker of the House Scott Saiki has decided once again to kill the legalization of cannabis by sentencing Senate Bill 669 to “death by referral” making a unilateral decision that four different committees must approve the measure for it to survive.

Responsible adult use will continue to be illegal in Hawaii. Speaker Saiki says it’s too complicated, not ready, and needs more work. Despite the fact that 21 states — along with Washington, D.C., and Guam — have acted to legalize recreational marijuana, and we here in Hawaii have already had countless task forces and study groups look into it.

But Saiki says nope not going to do it. And Saiki is pretty much in control of everything.

He controls who chairs the committees, who sits on the committees, and which bills get referred to those committees. He single-handedly decides which side is right and wrong when there are disputes on those same committees or questions regarding referrals.

This is not hyperbole. This is not exaggeration, puffery, embroidery, magnification, embellishment, or purple prose.

The speaker remains in the background, but without a doubt he’s the one calling the shots. Others take the hits, but speaker calls the shots.

But today’s discussion is not about taking hits, or shots — nor is it about weed. It’s about power and control.

The rules of the House give Speaker Saiki pretty much total control over who sits on a committee and who is chair: “The membership of each standing committee shall be appointed by the Speaker. The respective chairs and vice-chairs of each standing committee shall be appointed by the Speaker.”

The rules also give the speaker total control over bill referral. He made the decision to send the midwifery bill to House Finance even though it has no impact on the state budget. Likewise the killing of cannabis legalization (yet again) via referral to four different committees was entirely his choice.

The rules state, “It shall be the duty of the Speaker to … refer all bills to committees, subject to an appeal.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki has pretty much total control over his legislative chamber, the bills and the issues that come before it. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Yes, the speaker’s decisions may be challenged via an appeal, and sent to a faux “Review Panel.”

The rules state, “If the Speaker disagrees with the recommendation of the Review Panel … the Speaker’s decision shall be the final disposition of the matter.”

Unbelievably, the Speaker even has the power to override a decision by a majority of a committee.

“If a chair of a standing committee refuses a request of a majority of the committee members to set for public hearing a bill … the majority of the committee members may petition the Review Panel …If the Speaker objects to the recommendation of the Review Panel … the Speakers decision … shall be the final disposition of the matter.”

You can’t make this stuff up. The speaker appoints the committee and chair, the speaker decides which bills the committee will hear, and the speaker can override a majority of the committee.

‘Dictatorial Power’

There are 51 House members and 26 of them give the speaker his title and his power.

Some, perhaps most, of these 26 will say privately they don’t really support the dictatorial power granted to the speaker, but are simply being pragmatic. They may say this is the way it is, has been, and will always be.

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They are afraid if they object or push back, their bills will be killed, funding for their district projects will dry up, and in general they’ll be “punished by leadership.”

Ask any Capitol regular and they’ll tell you it’s always been this way. But they’ll also tell you it’s worse now than ever before.

Due to the large volume of bills/issues and time/scheduling pressures, unilateral decision making is accepted under the guise of expediency.

The extraordinary power granted to the speaker, euphemistically referred to as “leadership,” and by extension to the committee chair has been the norm for many years. The situation is similar, but not nearly as bad in the Senate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A few straightforward rule changes would vastly improve transparency and thus accountability:

  • Conduct the referral process as done now in the Senate. Majority staff attorneys make a recommendation, a leadership committee accepts or modifies that recommendation. Pau.
  • Eliminate the speaker’s power to override the “Review Committee.” Note: No similar power exists in the Senate.
  • Prohibit Finance Committee referrals unless a bill’s passage would require amending the state budget or an appropriation.
  • If a bill is heard and voted upon by its initial subject matter committee, all subsequent committees must hear and vote on it. Note: This does not mean subsequent committees must pass it.
  • Require a chair to state in writing reasons a bill should not be heard (and thus killed) and require committee members to indicate in writing support or opposition to the chair’s recommendation. This could be done in the form of a simple report.
  • Require a publicly recorded committee vote on a motion to defer.

There’s no shortage of good people serving now in the House and I suspect that number far exceeds the magic figure of 26. They are collectively responsible for the actions of the speaker, and they need to own it.

Hopefully someone out there on the third or fourth floor of that Big Square Building (perhaps 26 someones), will reach out and have a heart to heart with the speaker, appeal to his better angels, amend the rules, remove at least some of the fear, increase accountability — and support a more collaborative approach to conducting the people’s business.

Otherwise, the 26 need to start looking at plan B.

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About the Author

Gary Hooser

Gary Hooser is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative, a former Hawaii state senator (2002-2010) and Senate majority leader (2006-2010), and a former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.

Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo Gary, for reminding and/or educating us about the workings, or should I say "not-very-well-workings" of most of our State House. I agree there are also fine people representing us. And I strongly agree there are some not-so-fine.My 2-cents answer to your question: Be hard on all of them. They all should be on the hook. (Granted, some more than others.) All of Hawaii's state representatives, House and Senate, should be known for what they propose, vote for, and vote against, and be held accountable. Transparency - no more Saturday night or Sunday or behind-closed-doors votes.Appointments don't happen in a vacuum, and while some may be based on merit, I think it's arguable that many reps, especially those in more powerful positions, are appointed because of their affinity and alignment with our so-called "leadership". Yes, they have been elected but perhaps many won't be re-elected if more is exposed about them. So, yes, please be hard on, and get the hooks out for, all those who are dis-serving rather than serving the public as they were hired to do.Mahalo for all you are doing!

blessed69950116 · 1 month ago

Thanks for commenting and enlightening. Absent a con-con, where it would still be up in the air for actual positive changes to happen, this list looks like a solid start. And to apply pressure on those in office now maybe we should rely on social media to get our grassroots opinions and demands heard. Getting the younger demographic to care and react is easier using the tools they respond to versus sign waving in the streets. New candidates and proposals for a better, more reactive to the people is what we all want.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Gary,Good sensible article I don’t really know a lot about Saiki and Dela Cruz other than they seem like guys who support horrible companies like Monsanto who certainly DO Nothing for Hawaii except kill, make sick and pay for people of Authority to push the Monsanto trash around and keep it out of site under the Table? My hope is Luke Evslin will be strong enough to really do the right thing in his New Job. Luke, Mason, and Felicia Cowden were a voice for right and added a tremendous amount of common sense to a city council that seems to generally have a real shortage of common sense. A lot of issues in Hawaii in general without a doubt are related to a weak political system with poor voting turnouts usually , the same old RETREAD politicians being continually reelected on a State and local basis!

TruthMyView · 1 month ago

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